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Breaking Through Rule Breaking

Published: 28th Nov 2012 in OSA Magazine

In this article G Venkatesh analyses the importance of PPE, the current ground realities, the exorbitant charges levied by some PPE manufacturers, and how to ensure that PPE is used for the right reasons.

Personal Protective Equipment, commonly known as PPE, is important for carrying out any activity that involves a hazard. Manufacturing industries, the real estate sector, pharmaceutical plants and the food industry all require the extensive use of PPE by skilled and unskilled labourers and production supervisors. PPE is required not only for the safety of personnel carrying out the work, but also for the personnel supervising the work.

In the case of the pharmaceuticals and food industries, PPE is also required to ensure that the end product is of the highest quality and must be prepared in hygienic conditions using good manufacturing practises. Thus, PPE has become an integral aspect of safe working in industry.

Types of PPE

There are different types of PPE, such as safety shoes, helmets, full body harnesses, gloves, protective suits and protective eyewear. The use of PPE is complemented by other safety wherewithal, such as safety ladders, metal scaffolding and lanyards.

Global realities

The general human tendency is to break the rules. In India particularly, it is believed by many that the rules are meant to be broken. The knock-on effect of this for PPE means that compliance levels are low.

The West

In Western countries, the level of compliance expected is huge. People in the West have accepted that the use of PPE is important for safety - as it could save their lives.

The Middle East

In the Gulf Region there is lot of rhetoric about safety; however, the ground realities are quite different. If there are any accidents in this region one will not know about them until they are reported in the media. This confusion is compounded by the grey areas regarding who the regulatory authorities are.

India

In India, the food industry and pharmaceuticals sector do emphasise the importance of safety and the use of PPE; however, in other industries such as the chemicals and real estate sectors, the usage of PPE is seldom viewed seriously. 

Organisations always look at the cost of PPE and sometimes fail to understand that if PPE is not used it can lead to hazardous situations, putting workers in grave danger. The real estate sector - famous for diluting numerous Indian laws - leads the pack in breaking the safety rules.

Those who avoid the use of PPE to save the expense may not realise that using PPE can actually offer a great return on investment (ROI).

PPE ROI

Let us take a hypothetical example. Say ten workers are labouring at height without wearing a full body harness, safety helmet or safety shoes. In the event of an unfortunate incident where two workers fall and injure themselves fatally, the expenses incurred will be classified as:
• Those resulting in hospitalisation and medical treatment
• Compensation that needs to be paid for supporting the victims’ families
• The cost of interruption to business
• The business expense of senior management’s time involvement in the incident
• The process for filing insurance claims
• The cost of a detailed investigation

Besides all of the above expenses, one should not forget that accidents can sometimes mar a firm’s reputation, as their brand may receive adverse publicity and media exposure.

Case studies

The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in India is still considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. Litigation and cost of claims aside, the companies involved will have to accept that history may never forgive them, and that to some this accident will remain forever as a blotch on their record.

In some cases, accidents can also lead to the involvement of statutory authorities and can adversely impact on their licence to operate. The name of BP (British Petroleum) comes to mind when you think of the accident in their Texas refinery in 2005 that resulted in fatalities.

The accident exposed the gaps in BP’s health, safety, security and environment (HSSE) processes, but what about the lives that were lost? This accident is an example of why industries need to be open minded about both people safety and process safety.

Compliance

One can educate workers about safety, ensure that they comply with the safety policy, insist that they wear PPE and ensure that no work is commenced without a work permit; however, if there are no periodic risk assessments, mock drills or process checks, it may only be a matter of time before compliance starts to slip.

Without follow up training, after a certain amount of time complacency will begin to creep into any workforce. This is where continuous reviews and assessments of the safety processes help; for example, the Texas incident forced BP to formulate an integrity management standard for companywide implementation.

Real estate sector

The top players in the real estate sector emphasise the importance of PPE and safe working conditions; however, it is the second rung builders who may play ‘spoil sport’ as they often do not pay their contractors on time. In addition, as far as PPE is concerned, those I have encountered appear to insist on cutting corners.

Cutting corners involves supplying used and damaged safety shoes to workers, not insisting on the use of protective eyewear while carrying out dangerous work such as welding, and not using metal scaffolding even when working at height.

If a skilled or unskilled labourer dies while on duty, the builders pay compensation to the family. This silences the critics and can later be claimed back through the company’s insurance.

Safety experts

The safety experts in certain organisations appear to some as having only an ornamental role to play: checking compliance and reporting any lack thereof.

Those I have encountered do not have any accountability to improve matters nor to take important decisions to influence management in a positive manner into following the safety policy; neither do those I have met have the inclination to correct any problems faced.

Some safety managers are very good at analysis and report preparation, but have less in the way of leadership capabilities. It is atrocious to see that bamboo scaffoldings are widely used in India despite the fact that they are unsafe. Equally, I have cringed so many times upon seeing labourers - barefoot - working at height.

Some real estate players draw a blank when it comes to implementation of the work permit system. The process of having periodic checks is followed mechanically.

In the attempt to finish projects quickly at lower costs, safety rules are diluted, often with little or no regard for the consequences to workers’ safety.

PPE manufacturers

It is a fact that the pricing of many products is higher than can be afforded by many Indian businesses. I recall the times when we used to purchase gloves from a reputed dealer in Dadar, in central Mumbai. We were aghast at the exorbitant prices levied by certain manufacturers.

It amazed us that manufacturers would try to capitalise on someone’s dependency. This is why many contractors and structural consultants I know are scared to even think of purchasing PPE.

Certain PPE manufacturers will produce attractive power point presentations and glossy marketing brochures and fix an equally impressive margin on?their?products. Egged on by the strength of their brand in the market, some manufacturers command exorbitant prices.

If there were more competitors to certain PPE manufacturers this would impact positively on the current pricing situation, making higher quality PPE an achievable prospect for more end users across Asia.

Rather than price PPE realistically, there are certain companies who charge heftily and do not realise that the propagation of PPE use through volume growth is crucial too.

Alas, some companies take the easy route. They focus on value growth, selling low volumes at a higher price. Sadly, many Indian contractors cannot afford to buy high quality - and equally highly priced PPE.

The reluctant use of PPE is also due to the marketing tactics of certain manufacturers, which in some extreme cases that I have witnessed, border on avarice of the highest order.

Designing PPE

How many manufacturers reach out to the end users - the workers at the grass roots level who have to use the PPE? Communicating with safety managers and purchasing officers about the PPE that is manufactured is perfectly fine; however, it is vital that the workers are engaged in the PPE design so that their feedback can be used to tweak designs and make the end product more comfortable.

PPE manufacturers should explore ways of touching base with workers by organising workshops and bazaar expos, which will provide an excellent opportunity for the manufacturers to interact with the end users.

Correct PPE

One problem that industries in India acutely face is the lack of skilled manpower in the discipline of safety. There are programmes that confer degrees in safety and risk management; however, these disciplines are still niche fields and so graduates passing out of engineering colleges are wary of choosing subjects such as safety as their elective, as the job prospects are not always particularly bright.

Safety as a subject is a specialised field. Sadly, there is very little research happening on the subject of safety in India at university level.

Another reason for the lack of interest in the discipline stems from top management looking at safety as a necessary evil, as opposed to something that can add to their brand equity. In the case of some incidents, the safety officers are the ones to lose their jobs, even though the incident may not be the result of their inefficiency.

Safety is a staff function, and so the safety officer depends on cooperation from workers on the shop floor to safeguard that efforts to ensure safety policy is complied with are fruitful.

A lack of awareness about which PPE to use can often complicate matters. The type of hazard to which the wearer is exposed will determine which PPE must be worn, from a selection including: helmets, hard hats, safety eyewear, respiratory masks, chemical suits, gloves, footwear, rope lanyards, shock absorbing lanyards, snap hooks, and full body harnesses.

The knowledge gap in this area can be vast - especially in the real estate sector. The manufacturing sector is adept in these matters, as they have skilled and competent safety officers who conduct regular risk assessments and hazard analyses, documenting the requirement of necessary PPE for different hazards.

Risk assessed permits

Many manufacturing companies have a RAP, or Risk Assessed Permit system that can give out the PPE to be worn along with images of the PPE on the printed work permit, so that any worker can understand the details of PPE to be worn.

Fall protection

Let us look at the PPE available for fall protection. Typically, these may be classified as the following:
• Basic fall protection harness
• Full body harness
• Reflective vest with harness
• Fall arrestor
• Multifunctional harness

The good news is that manufacturing of such PPE in India is building its momentum. The bad news, however, is that the standards and specifications in place to be adhered to are unfortunately negligible.

As per the claim of some manufacturers, customisation of PPE is apparently fine, but how are purchasers and end users to know whether the equipment provided is right for the job in hand?

If a fall arrestor is used during a project execution and, for example, due to quality issues there is an accident which leads to a serious injury or even a fatality, then who will assume accountability? Can the fact that a manufacturer exports to countries like Italy, North Europe and South America be good enough to vouchsafe the quality of their PPE?

Safety cooperation

All players in the industry need to join hands to ensure that we have in place a process of certification that can be carried out by an independent agency.

Manufacturers themselves could form an association to lay down the standards and specifications, paving the way for the formulation of an industry wide standard for PPE. This will ensure, along with sales of PPE, that the required level of safety assurance is provided.

Stringent quality tests have to be conducted at the design stage so that the use of PPE does not lead to any untoward incidents. Going forward, designs will need to be more user friendly, as standards varying from one manufacturing company to another may cause confusion for end users.

Considering the track record of government agencies in India, it could be better if such an agency is formed with public-private participation. This cynicism stems from the Indian government’s failure to see the potential of continuing to have an organisation such as the Loss Prevention Association of India (LPAI). Instead of strengthening the LPAI, the government chose the easiest way of disbanding the organisation, allegedly wat the behest of vested interests.

Client centric

Some manufacturers claim that they make PPE according to their clients’ requirements, but I feel that the definition of ‘clients’ must be expanded. 

Is the client the one who buys the PPE? Or is the client the one who uses the PPE while executing hazardous operations? In reality, the definition of the client should be all encompassing.

The purchasing manager is as much the client as the worker who wears the PPE, and will ultimately suffer the consequences if their protection is not of a sufficient standard.

Motivating PPE use

If PPE is to be used widely, it needs to be affordable. Organisations must find innovative ways of distributing these products and reducing the cost of operations so that they benefit from the economies of scale, by selling a higher volume of PPE.

Many safety managers insist on the use of PPE because the company’s safety policy demands it - not because PPE is important to protect workers from injuries and accidents. This is in part where the problem lies.

Attitude change

Educating users about the importance of PPE by way of promotional videos will motivate them to use PPE because it is good for them - not simply because they are told to do so.

The PPE design has to be user friendly. Non-compliance has to be dealt with in a manner that is more facilitative and less dictatorial. Penal actions are called for only when there is recurring non-compliance.

One should not forget that non-compliance in most cases comes as a result of a lack of awareness and training. Last but not least, the leaders of an organisation must be serious about safety for the situation to change for the better. 

Management must address their employees about safe working practises. They must make time for this activity if safety is an important business agenda for them.

Conclusion

If it is human nature to break the rules, what incentive is there not to cheat the PPE rule as well? The answer is in continued education. Workers need to realise that use of PPE is not encouraged for the mere futility of following rules - it is the fundamental last line of defence against workplace hazards, and may mean the difference between life and death.

Certain manufacturers appear to be evaded by the fact that PPE is not simply a money making enterprise. Their products put lives at stake: either through their poor quality, or by pricing the majority of users out of the market. While it can be argued that there is little room for humanity in business, manufacturers and end users must work together to ensure no more lives are needlessly lost.

If safety in Asia is to be improved, an overhaul in the attitudes toward PPE is necessary for all involved - from manufacturers to distributers, and from supervisors to the workers who face hazards daily. 

Published: 28th Nov 2012 in OSA Magazine

Author


G Venkatesh


G Venkatesh lives in Bangalore, India. He graduated in Oil Technology from University Department of Technology (UDCT), Mumbai. He completed his masters in business administration from Southern New Hampshire College, Boston. He holds a diploma in insurance and risk management and a supply chain management diploma from APICS. He has also been a guest faculty member at management colleges, teaching the subjects of HR, Project and Technology Management, Supply Chain Management, Risk Management and Insurance. He currently works for a private firm that operates in the infrastructure protection space. A versatile writer, Venkatesh’s oeuvre is vast, covering book reviews, blogs, spiritual articles on Hindu mythology, music reviews and articles on safety, quality, project management, insurance, fire safety, cookery and human resource management. He has written fiction, too, including short stories for children. Venkatesh believes that a passionate effort contributes in no small measure to a great output. With more than 19 years of experience in industry (most of which was in the oil and energy sector), Venkatesh feels that his best is yet to come.


G Venkatesh

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