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Heading For Safe Ground

Published: 05th Sep 2013 in OSA Magazine

The many solutions to above the neck protection

Accidents occur across the globe – some are reported, most are not. Some lead to injuries while others lead to fatalities. Loss of livelihoods is another consequential effect. 

Despite the advent of state of the art safety equipment, accidents continue to happen with impunity either because of ignorance/lack of awareness of the risks involved, or due to sheer reluctance to follow safe procedures. Safe working has to be ingrained as the only way to work. Unless this consciousness permeates through our work practise, it is an almost impossible task to avert potential disasters.

Overview

Above the neck protection involves protecting our head, our eyes, ears and nose. Yet, this is one area that receives scant attention as complacence takes precedence over safe working behaviours. In India, it is a common sight to see people wearing a full body harness but without protective eye wear, which defies all logic. There are workers who work at heights with safety shoes but without protective head gear. It is also not uncommon to see workers who do welding and fabrication work without any protective eye gear, or with eye wear that is ill designed. Seldom do workers realise the long term impact of their carelessness. By the time they realise it, it is too late.

There is no guarantee that protective wear will make one escape unhurt during a fall, but its value stems from the fact that it minimises the impact of the accident so that injuries sustained are lessened. 

Two things are important here. Firstly, safety has to be inculcated as a desirable trait in every child right from the school level. Secondly, the role of regulation can never be over emphasised. Unless there is stringent regulation to book defaulters who willfully cause loss of lives and injuries due to their recklessness, the message will never reach the intended audience. The role of the media in India needs to be emphasised here. In an era of satellite television and breaking news, the media is more obsessed with sensationalism than promoting safety. Though I am writing this from an Indian perspective, the same could be equally said elsewhere where enforcement of safety rules is lacking.

Reduction of risk at source is something that all of us know is a sensible approach, but seldom is risk management taken seriously enough. Some organisations are ‘allergic’ to processes that can fix accountability and so they prefer to give things like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and their correct usage a miss. 

Consider your workforce

In India, there is still a lack of awareness and clearly lack of interest in ensuring the selection of the right PPE, using it for the right application and using it in an appropriate manner.

Research has established that most workers suffer from respiratory hazards in the workplace and in a country like India, such things are never taken seriously. Every time I see a worker working with asbestos unprotected, without any PPE, I cringe. Respiratory hazards are a silent killer. There is a tendency to think that having respiratory protective wear will suffice. No one gives a second thought about the right usage and application.

Digressing a bit, but by way of drawing a poignant parallel, many two-wheeler riders find helmets a tad uncomfortable. Imagine you are stuck in a traffic jam and you have your helmet on. As you perspire excessively in a sultry climate, within no time you may catch a cold, pointing to one reason helmets aren’t worn. Similarly, ergonomics of PPE plays an important role in its acceptability by the workers. If something is not comfortable, people tend to avoid wearing it. This is something that PPE manufacturers and suppliers should take note of. Just as less than optimal protection is undesirable, excessive protection also can prove to be counterproductive. 

Though there are technical standards for PPE, there could be variations of one product with another because of minor differences in design by different manufacturers. Procurement staff should work with operational staff whenever there is a change in spec, or change in PPE manufacturer, to ensure that anything that is ordered new is comfortable. 

New suppliers can also supply PPE that can be used for a trial period. When more than one variety of PPE is used, care must be taken to ensure thatone doesn’t functionally interfere with the other. Ideally, if we have one common global standard specification, it will do a world of good – but as of now, we are dealing with the problem of acceptance of PPE more than anything else. Technical specs need to have ergonomic aspects embedded in them.

Encouraging best practise

In the UK, there is national regulation to insist that workers are appropriately trained in the usage of PPE. In India, we have the legal systems in place as well a host of acts which are intended to protect the worker, but as a nation we are extremely poor when it comes to enforcement of the regulation. 

At best, regulation helps when it is time for payment of compensation to the victim. Thus, the approach is more reactive than proactive.

Manufacturers need to come out with innovative products that are easy to use and maintain.

We have always believed that the cost of PPE can be reduced by economies of scale. Produce more so that the cost gets distributed between a greater number of units and the PPE becomes more affordable.

Besides PPE, good practise and organisational control are important too. Training on safety procedures and use of PPE is vital. The areas that need protection are sight, hearing, respiratory systems as well as protecting our skull from impacts by wearing suitable headgear.

Mere availability of PPE is not enough. Workers should know how to use it. It is also important to use the right kind of PPE for the right purpose. A properly conducted risk assessment should address all these issues. Training needs to focus on proper usage of the PPE but it is also crucial to educate workers and create awareness. It is important to engage them so that they understand the reasons for wearing the PPE and the adverse implications of not wearing it.

The Risk Assessed Permit system is intended to address issues such as these and many organisations are adopting it. Be it hazardous work or non hazardous work, supervision is must. Any act that is unsafe must be stopped immediately, but the approach should be that of facilitation. At all times, supervisors should ensure that their criticism is constructive and that workers do not panic. Repeated carelessness needs to be dealt with severely only after ascertaining that the non compliance is not due to ignorance.

Hazards in the workplace can change all the time. Those with supervisory responsibilities must ensure that those working under their supervision understand the need for and importance of PPE. On many occasions, it has been found that organisations do not have a change management process in place, so if they have a new worker who is unfamiliar with the hazard, he has to be first acclimatised to the situation before being assigned any responsibility. 

Overly enthusiastic supervisors and senior workers can sometimes scare the new person, so it is important to ensure that the communication is right. Based on my personal experience, I can say with confidence that the right balance of discipline and empathy will have the most desirable impact if we can take the workers into confidence and explain to them the reasons behind taking such protective measures. To reiterate, the approach has to be conciliatory and not critical.

Eye protection

Eye damage is something that happens frequently but it is also something that is easy to prevent with the appropriate protective eye wear. Eye protection guards against the hazards of impact, splashes from chemicals, liquid droplets, gases and welding arcs. Even the light from lasers can be harmful. I recollect recording a near miss when I saw that the office boy was constantly being exposed to laser radiation as he used the photocopying machine from morning to evening. Protective equipment for the eyes includes safety spectacles, goggles and face shields.

An important aspect of eye protection is that the PPE must not only be fit for purpose but it must also meet needs of comfort and durability. 

Regulations mandate that the people wearing eye protection must be comfortable with it. Many employers are magnanimous enough to involve their employees in the PPE selection. This also ensures wearer compliance.

At the end of the day, too many organisational controls can be intimidating. In India, one aspect of defensive driving that has been highlighted time and again is that of regular eye check ups for drivers who drive on highways in public utility vehicles and heavy transport vehicles. Eyesight can change over time and it is better to be vigilant on this front.

Have you ever wondered how a person with defective eyesight working on a hazardous operation can make things difficult for himself and others? The risk becomes exponential if such a person is driving on the road.

It is not enough to have safety eye wear. Maintaining it is important too. There are cleaning cloths that are available and also cleaning solutions that need to be used to clean safety glasses daily. Rough handling of glasses must be avoided as otherwise there can be scratches, which can impair vision.

Avoiding respiratory hazards

Where it comes to breathing apparatus, it is important to ensure that the apparatus does not suffocate the workers. Some kinds of apparatus like filters and disposable masks offer limited protection against dust and fumes. As a user, one can be perplexed about which PPE to choose and use. 

This is where the manufacturers can play a major role. They have to keep things simple and let genuine safety requirements precede commercial interests. 

The level of exposure must be gauged properly so that the right type of filters are used in the face masks. The masks must protect you from not only dust but other contaminants. In some industrial environments, the level of hazardous materials can deplete the oxygen to such low levels that users may need to use a self contained breathing apparatus. For using such apparatus, training of employees is mandatory.

Protect your hearing

Let us now talk about hearing protection. Noise exposure can lead to hearing damage and, interestingly, this is one risk that is often overlooked by one and all. Hearing loss is irreversible and many people suffer such losses over a period of time, after being exposed to increased decibels. 

The troublesome part is that unless you go for a medical checkup, you may have no idea about the deterioration of your hearing patterns. Industries should not forget that compensation claims due to hearing losses – not an issue in India, where life is considered cheap – in Western countries can be mind boggling. The saddest part is that, at least in India, no one is aware of noise regulations and decibel levels – although a real some song and dance can be made about extremely high decibel levels during traditional Indian festivals.

Though in India we have the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, very few are aware of their rights under the same. I recall the time I lived in a place called Mulund in Mumbai, where a perfume manufacturer had a factory bang in the middle of a residential area. Believe me, you could not walk in that area without covering your nose with a handkerchief.

Ear plugs, ear muffs and canal caps can protect ears from loud noise by reducing the level of sound reaching the ears. Even in this case, one should wear ear protection with the right specifications. Needless to add, manufacturers have to assume responsibility for creating greater awareness and keeping things simple. Using ear plugs that do not provide complete protection doesn’t serve any purpose. Disposable ear plugs are available in the market but workers need to know how to use them. Reusable ear plugs made of plastic or rubber are also available, and these can be washed and used again. 

The broad picture

Time and again it has been stressed that safety is everyone’s responsibility but seldom is this fact accepted easily. Organisations need to adopt an inclusive safety culture where everyone develops a sense of responsibility and commitment on issues related to safety and their implementation. Firms need to consider the expense of PPE as an investment that contributes to business sustainability and thus, maintaining an adequate stock of PPE is a must. 

Segregation and disposal of contaminated gloves, eye wear and masks, or broken hard hats is a must. Rules of safety must be equally applicable to all employees. Supervisors and managers have to lead by example. Above the neck protection PPE that needs to be maintained will have to be given separate storage and a team must be allocated to take care of such issues. Besides internal training, inviting experts on the subject to come to the factory and conduct workshops is another excellent technique to motivate workers to use PPE.

Well known research firm Frost & Sullivan has published a research report on Chinese Above-the-neck PPE Markets. In this research, Frost & Sullivan’s expert analysts thoroughly examine the following markets:
• Head protection equipment – industrial helmets, bump caps, fire helmets
• Eye and face protection equipment – spectacles, goggles, face shields, welding protection equipment
• Hearing protection equipment – ear plugs and ear muffs

The Chinese government’s emphasis on regulations regarding PPE products is compelling manufacturers to adhere to high production standards, which helps them counter the challenges posed by low cost counterfeits. The losses incurred due to the use of low quality PPE products has garnered significant public attention, forcing employers to replace low quality PPE products with reliable protective gear. 

This greater awareness among both employers and employees about the importance of PPE is a huge boost to the market and a blow to the counterfeiters’ market. 

Companies supplying above the neck PPE products offer training programmes, which further enhance product awareness and sales.

The author of this research said: “China’s move toward a domestic demand-led economy is likely to raise the aggregate employment in the country and thereby, application of above the neck PPE in major end user industries such as infrastructure and construction, manufacturing, and engineering.” The overall rise of the local industries results in considerable and varied demands. To address the specific needs for customers, companies are innovating high end products for customers that are not price sensitive, which also enhances the revenue growth rates of the market.

To tide over the economic downturn, however, end user companies had implemented several cost cutting measures that resulted in lower replacement rates for PPE products.

Corporations with a large number of employees will be particularly eager to lower their operational expenditures by saving on PPE replacement – this hinders the volume sales. 

The best way forward is to innovate stylish and cost effective PPE that can appeal to both the employers and employees. The analyst also notes: “Proactive innovation to combine safety performance with style could go a long way in meeting the specific needs of end users as well as increasing the replacement rate of above the neck PPE products. 

“Value-added features with excellent finish make a strong case among customers for replacement sales.”

Conclusions

Above the neck risk is by far the most underestimated risk and therefore it is imperative that above the neck protection is given due weight and consideration by industrial users.

Manufacturers need to expand the innovation funnel to introduce new PPE that is easy to use and maintain and is also easy on your pocket.

When the usage of PPE spreads across the industrial population, manufacturers can get benefits due to economies of scale. Employers should look at the right kind of PPE and use a combination of employee engagement, good industrial practises and organisational controls to manage the risks effectively.

Published: 05th Sep 2013 in OSA Magazine

Author


Venkatesh Ganapathy


Venkatesh Ganapathy graduated in oil technology from UDCT, Mumbai, in 1992. He worked in Castrol India Limited and Panasonic Firepro Systems Pvt Ltd before moving into academia full time. He has completed his postgraduate management degree from Southern New Hampshire University. Additionally, he is a fellow of the Insurance Institute of India, Mumbai, and has a diploma in supply chain management from APICS. Teaching and writing are his twin passions. 

Presently, Venkatesh works as an Associate Professor in the Presidency School of Business, Bangalore, teaching the following subjects: Marketing, Production Operations Management and General Management. He is also pursuing his doctoral degree from Alliance University, Bangalore. He has written several technical and non-technical articles on diverse topics, and also a few research papers.


Venkatesh Ganapathy

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