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Find the Right Protective Equipment for Public Works Staff

​Risk management professionals discuss personal protective equipment often enough that they mostly refer to it simply as "PPE." The topic of PPE entered into broader awareness because of the coronavirus pandemic, since items like gloves, face shields and N95 respirators are forms of PPE.

Outside of public health emergencies, PPE is a part of life for public health workers. Precisely what kind of PPE they require depends on the specific tools they use, and the hazards they face.

PPE hazard analysis allows employers to understand what kind of PPE is needed for employees, employers should conduct a PPE hazard analysis. The analysis should be performed by someone knowledgeable about both the equipment and the potential hazards. After conducting a walkthrough hazard analysis survey, employers should determine who should wear what PPE. They should have discussions with front-line employees to ensure that they are not missing any potential hazards.

"Public works employees are exposed to risks every day," Bethany Pendley, loss control manager for the Municipal Association of South Carolina's Risk Management Services said. "A hazard analysis is essential to determine the appropriate personal protective equipment needed to protect employees from injuries."

All public works employees
Although the work of some public works employees might expose them to different hazards, most of them should wear steel-toed boots, safety glasses, hard hats and gloves. Public works employees who work in the presence of vehicle traffic should wear high-visibility vests or shirts.

Fall hazards
Any employees who work more than 4 feet off the ground should wear fall protection, including a harness and lanyard, while working at an elevated height.

Chemical and respiratory hazards
Employees who use chemicals need to wear chemical-resistant gloves, goggles, a face shield and an apron. Employees exposed to chemicals should refer to the material safety data sheet to determine if respiratory protection is required while using the chemical. If an employee wants to wear a dust mask voluntarily, they should review Appendix D of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Respiratory Protection Standard. Employers should also use a full written respirator program, including a medical questionnaire, fit testing, and training for employees.

Electrical hazards
Employees exposed to electrical hazards should wear PPE determined by the arc flash analysis per the voltage with which they are working. All PPE should be inspected for any cuts or damage before use. Damaged PPE must be taken out of service immediately.

Cutting and welding hazards
Employees who use chainsaws are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to wear foot protection made with cut-resistant material, hard hats with a full face shield, hearing protection, cut-resistant chaps and gloves. Chainsaws are one of many pieces of machinery that can be significantly noisy. If employees experience 85 decibels of noise for an extended time, they should wear hearing protection.

Employees who are cutting, welding, or brazing must wear an approved welding shield with lenses approved for what they are welding. If they are grinding, they must have a full face shield and safety glasses while operating the grinder.

PPE maintenance and training
Employers must provide or pay for necessary PPE for employees, with some exceptions for footwear, lost PPE or intentional damage.

Employees should receive training on inspecting, cleaning, storing, putting on and taking off the PPE properly before being allowed to wear specific items.

For questions about PPE usage, talk to John Ciesielski, loss control consultant for the Municipal Association's Risk Management Services, at or 803.354.4752; or Bethany Pendley, loss control manager, at or 803.933.1210.