Occupational health and safety trends

3M Safety & Graphics
Friday, 31 August, 2012

Every dollar spent on safety sends US$4 to US$6 to the bottom line, notes a recent 3M Safety Outlook and Trends Report. The report outlines global occupational health and safety trends and also advises that health and safety managers holistically assess the required PPE components and select an integrated solution.

Companies need to invest in risk evaluations to identify on-site hazards, and put the best processes and controls in place including appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE), recommends the 3M report. Below are the some key highlights from the report.

Safety and performance standards

The International Standards Organization (ISO) continues to develop global safety standards for PPE. Health and safety regulations are becoming increasingly stringent around the world. Some areas, including Asia and Latin America, are beginning to increase their safety and health requirements to more closely align with standards in other areas like the US and Europe. The development of ISO standards will continue to change this landscape and motivate countries all over the world to align with global health and safety standards as a best practice.

Separately, the majority of current PPE performance standards around the world regulate individual PPE performance separately, rather than their combined performance. This is a common cause of worker discomfort and improper use of PPE. Conflict may occur when two different pieces of PPE, for example eyewear and respirator, compete for the same face and head space. PPE is usually designed to be used individually and workers may be tempted to remove or improperly use one component or the other. As a best practice, safety and health professionals should consider all the different types of PPE being used when selecting specific models.

PPE trends

One interesting development in the safety industry is the distribution of PPE in vending machines, which are typically located at the end-user company for workers to access each day. “When a worker needs PPE, he or she swipes a card or enters a code to receive that equipment, and the vending machine tracks which employee and department received each piece of equipment. The machine also notifies the distributor when stock needs to be replenished. This drastically simplifies managing PPE costs because the process of counting and replenishing stock is automated.”

Comfort and compliance

The report states that an ongoing struggle is to make sure all employees who are supposed to wear PPE are actually wearing it on the job, all the time. The best way to protect workers is to purchase PPE they’ll actually want to wear. For example, workers demand comfortable and lightweight respirators they can easily breathe through, especially in hot environments. Respirators must also fit unique face shapes and not interfere with other PPE such as head or eyewear. They need hearing protection that matches the ear canal, is easy to insert and comfortable for long periods of time. They need powered and supplied air respirators and hard hats that are lightweight and comfortable.

Industry-specific PPE

Certain industries and substances have unique needs that require more attention and research, and may require specific health and safety standards.

Mining: Hearing loss is the most prevalent occupational illness for miners, according to NIOSH. 25% of the mining population is exposed to levels exceeding the permissible exposure limit of 90 dBA, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in 2006.2.

Food and beverage: To help ensure worker protection and strict hygiene standards for food safety, respirators need to protect against particulate hazards, such as flour or grain dust. They also need to stand out in a highly visible colour, include metal-detectable parts to prevent contamination and be designed without staples or small, detachable parts. When it comes to hearing protection, these workers need special earmuff designs that include premoulded foam inserts to provide better thermal isolation, helping prevent moisture build-up.

Military: Soldiers have an ongoing need for enhanced, clear communication during operations while simultaneously needing to protect hearing from the noise and mechanics of battle. In addition, hearing loss often has no visible external manifestation of injury and has low priority for care in a trauma setting. However, hearing loss can act as an indicator of deeper brain injury and is especially dangerous in life and death situations such as war. In the US, the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence (HCE) was established in 2010 and expects to be fully operational in December 2013. Among other goals, the HCE is committed to leading the way towards hearing-loss prevention and restorative technologies for all service members and veterans.

Sustainable PPE

Companies providing PPE are taking a more holistic approach to sustainability, addressing how to improve every aspect of the process, from raw materials and production to transportation and logistics, customer use and disposal. Manufacturing PPE is reported to use about 10% of all clothing and technical textiles worldwide, according to Health & Safety Middle East (HSME) magazine. The PPE industry also uses polyester, polyamide, polyethylene and other polymers derived from fossil resources. In addition, increasingly technical demands of PPE lead to the use of materials such as aramides, flour-based membranes and finishes or phosphates, which are also derived from fossil sources. Looking ahead, PPE manufacturers may leverage biopolymers for disposable PPE and other alternative natural fibres such as linen and hemp. PPE maintenance also deepens its carbon footprint. Safety and health professionals can help extend the lifetime of PPE by improving tracking and tracing of equipment. Adding end-of-service indicators can help automate the process of tracking and maintaining PPE.

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