Historians will look back on 2020 as the year of COVID-19. Perhaps this year will be one of the most pivotal in recent history, at least in terms of shaping how we think for years to come. For example, it is a safe bet that the global pandemic will change the way many people think about personal safety. One of the pandemic’s side effects could be a new appreciation for safety gear at work and at home.
At work, safety gear is understood primarily through the lens of personal protective equipment (PPE) like hard hats, safety goggles, and gloves. The emphasis on PPE differs from one country to the next and is heavily reliant on government regulations. Some countries put more emphasis on worker safety than others do.
That may change thanks to the pandemic. It could be that some countries with previously lax safety standards will experience a newfound appreciation for the role government has to play in ensuring worker safety. Workers themselves might more fully appreciate the personal protective equipment that keeps them safe day-to-day.
Safety Equipment Categories
The sheer number of PPE products available on a global scale would make it impossible to list all of them. However, discussing equipment categories is more manageable. Nearly all safety gear falls into one of the following categories:
- Head Protection – Head protection includes safety helmets, hard hats, bump caps, and face guards.
- Protective Clothing – This category covers everything from coats and trousers to gloves and footwear. It also includes highly visible clothing items made with brightly colored fabrics and reflective materials.
- Eye Protection – Safety glasses, goggles, and cleaning stations make up the eye protection category.
- Ear Protection – Soft foam earplugs and industrial-grade earmuffs make up the bulk of the products in the ear protection category.
- Fall Protection – Protecting workers against falls is a growing concern around the world. Fall protection equipment includes things such as body harnesses, fall arrest kits, carabiners, and lanyards.
- Respiratory Protection – This category is suddenly familiar to many most thanks to COVID-19. It includes items like face masks and respirators.
There are less common categories of personal protective equipment specific to certain industries. Water safety, ergonomic equipment, and storage are a few examples. What must be understood about PPE is that it differs from one industry to the next and from one legal jurisdiction to another.
Protecting Workers from Danger
You might work in an industry that requires the use of certain safety gear. If so, you may or may not be on board with PPE requirements. Personal feelings aside, the rules and regulations governing the use of PPE are all about protecting workers from danger. They are about working as safely as possible in environments that are generally unsafe.
For example, the UK has one of the most restrictive sets of rules regarding working at height. One of the many rules in the UK prohibits workers from using ladders unless doing so is both a reasonably safe and necessary for function. They must find safer ways to access at-height work if at all possible.
Furthermore, all at-height work must be conducted using fall protection equipment. That is why you see construction workers wearing safety harnesses and tethers while building new buildings. That’s why you see window washers on platforms tethering their tools and equipment so nothing falls to the ground.
Balancing Safety and Productivity
Workers don’t always appreciate having to worry about PPE on the job. For one thing, some pieces of safety equipment are just uncomfortable to use. Other pieces are neither comfortable nor uncomfortable but interfere with productivity. A combination of discomfort and lack of productivity can leave workers with negative attitudes toward safety gear.
Manufacturers have to walk that fine line between balancing safety and productivity. The products they manufacture must be in line with government regulations and at least minimum allowable specs, yet customer needs also have to be considered. If one has to be favored over another, equipment manufacturers are going to give more weight to government regulations.
All of this to say that safety gear is not always ergonomic or pleasant to use. Some pieces are downright annoying. But when worker safety is in question, you err on the side of caution. We certainly have seen as much in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Silver Lining
During times like these, it is helpful to look for silver linings in the midst of events that would otherwise be most tragic. One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is the potential for new awareness and appreciation of personal protective equipment.
Maybe your job requires that you wear certain kinds of clothing. Perhaps you have to make use of safety equipment to do your job. In either case, you hopefully have a new appreciation for just how fragile human life is. Hopefully, safety will be at the forefront of your mind as you and your colleagues return to work.