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PPE: Much More Than Basic or General Protection

A groundman was working his third day on the job for a utility construction crew that was building a new three-phase circuit. His task that day was pulling rope by hand between the poles in order to pull in the conductors. While walking between two poles, he realized that he’d forgotten to return a pair of pliers to the lineman who owned them. The groundman pulled the pliers out of his pocket, just to make sure he still had them, and proceeded to drop the pliers on the ground. Because he was standing in a field with hay that stood nearly waist high, the groundman didn’t see the green metal fence post as he quickly bent over to pick up the pliers. His safety glasses struck the hidden fence post directly over his left eye, with such force that the post cut a groove in the glasses as it slid up and hit the groundman’s forehead at his upper eyebrow. Fortunately, the safety glasses took the brunt of the impact, resulting in a minor injury that only required first aid, and the groundman’s tetanus shot was up-to-date.

If you had told the groundman two days earlier – when he was first issued his safety glasses – that they would soon save him from a serious eye injury, he likely wouldn’t have believed you. I know he wouldn’t have believed you because I was the groundman in that story, and it never occurred to me during my first couple days on the job that my basic PPE would protect me from what would undoubtedly have been a severe eye injury.

Whether it was the safety glasses that shielded my eyes all those years ago, a hard hat that protects a groundman running a handline or a high-visibility vest that makes a worker visible to traffic, utility workers must never underestimate the value of PPE. It can protect you from serious injury or death.

Last Line of Defense
Not too long ago, I attended a presentation in which the presenter kept referring to basic and general types of PPE. These included hard hats, safety glasses, hearing protection, vests and various types of gloves. The presenter was prepared and knowledgeable, but as I listened, I began to think about the “basic” and “general” labels this person was using. All of us in the utility industry have PPE requirements and have probably referred to some forms of the equipment as basic or general; I know I have and still do. Nonetheless, these terms greatly underrate the protection that PPE affords us. We wouldn’t use “basic” or “general” to describe a head injury, hearing loss, vision impairment or an injured appendage, would we? And yet, these are just some of the injuries that our basic, general PPE helps to prevent.

I’m not saying that we need to rewrite our safety manuals or change our vocabulary. I simply think we must always be mindful to never undervalue our PPE, and to never take it for granted even though we use it every day and sometimes hear it associated with the words “basic” or “general.” We use this PPE to comply with health and safety policies implemented by our employers and OSHA. However, we must make sure we understand – and train all workers to understand – that beyond PPE being a requirement, it is the last line of defense to protect employees who perform high-risk tasks.

When you look at the big picture, PPE is anything but general or basic. There are explicit requirements regarding the use of specific types of protective equipment. Employers must create, implement and maintain PPE programs that ensure those requirements are being communicated to all applicable employees through training, and that they are being followed in the field. During training, focus on why PPE is used. With so many policies and items issued with the instructions to wear the equipment all the time, let’s make sure everyone understands why PPE is so important – it really can make the difference between life and death. After initial training is complete, monitoring and refresher training should be used to assure that PPE is being properly utilized and worn as required, which isn’t very basic or general at all.

About the Author: Steve Bryant, CUSP, is a safety and training supervisor for Pike Electric with more than 20 years of experience. He worked in the residential and commercial electric fields while attending college and then spent several years in the public safety sector prior to joining Pike in 2000. Bryant completed Pike’s power-line technician apprenticeship and is an OSHA-authorized outreach trainer. He also is an active member of the OSHA T&D Partnership Task Team II, and was recognized by the National Safety Council in 2011 as a Rising Star of Safety.

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