PPE and the 'assumption of protection'
Analysis by an international team of 14 researchers into 66 scholarly articles suggests that it is productive to question an ‘assumption of protection’ around personal protective equipment (PPE). Through their narrow scope — of the effectiveness of coveralls as protection against agricultural pesticides in OECD-countries — the researchers set out to test whether rising concerns around PPE are valid. “Personal protection equipment (PPE) holds a privileged position in safety interventions in many countries, despite the fact that they should only be used as a last resort,” the researchers state in their study. “This is even more paradoxical because many concerns have arisen as to their actual effectiveness under working conditions and their ability to provide the protection attributed to them by certain occupational safety strategies and marketing authorisation procedures.” This 2020 study set out to test whether these concerns are justified.
The decision was made by the researchers to narrow the scope of the study so that it would be possible to analyse all forms of assessment within the sample. These forms of assessment were: the observed PPE effectiveness as it related to underlying assumptions of the marketing authorisation procedures; PPE laboratory testing; field tests in which PPE-wearing practices were controlled and uncontrolled; and analysis of how efficient the preventive instructions based on the wearing of the PPE were, in this case coveralls. The narrowed scope was defined by a focus on particular products needing protection against one category of pesticide (plant protection products or ‘PPP’), a particular type of PPE (coveralls) and particular geographical areas (OECD countries), which resulted in the 66 articles selected for analysis.
In their findings the researchers note that “recommending the use of PPE is key to the granting of marketing authorisation”, meaning that certain hazardous materials (such as PPP) only achieve marketing authorisation because “it is assumed that wearing PPE will considerably limit exposure”. Were it not for this “assumption of protection”, the researchers note, some dangerous products “would be banned”. Yet the problem lies, according to this research, in that “the actual effectiveness of PPE in working conditions may be over-estimated”. It is a problem compounded by certain factors (such as availability, cost, and thermic and mechanical discomfort) of PPE that may render instructions for wearing PPE “inapplicable”. In short, the researchers argue that the use of PPE does not always come with a guarantee of effective protection.
The researchers make five main conclusions based on their study. First, that the “possibility of having PPE that is comfortable, suitable to practical conditions, affordable, and protects from contamination by any and all handled products has yet to be demonstrated”; second, that there “is no mechanism allowing systematic monitoring of the feasibility and actual effectiveness (in post-marketing conditions) of the protection provided by PPE as they are postulated in marketing authorisation procedures”; third, that “in studies in which PPE wearing practices are uncontrolled, PPE does not always fulfil the protective role attributed to it in marketing authorisation procedures”; fourth, that there “are many determinants that could influence the efficiency of recommendations based on PPE use”; and finally, with regard to their particular case study, that advances in “toxicology (on the effects of low doses) and developments in chemical technologies (with the emergence of nanomaterials) call for a radical re-examination of the role that PPE can play in preventing chemical risk”.
The full study, titled ‘Critical review of the role of PPE in the prevention of risks related to agricultural pesticide use’, appears in the March 2020 edition of Safety Science and is available open access here.
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