Looking after business starts with protecting the workforce. The right Personal Protection Equipment for the job is vital for safeguarding employees and the bottom line, says Christian Matenaers, marketing director for online industrial consumables and equipment vendor, Zoro.
Duty of care to employees started with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and laws safeguarding workers rightly continue to get tighter as technology advances. But what part can employees in the composites industry play in keeping themselves safe from preventable diseases?
According to The British Safety Council, it is estimated more than 31.2 million working days were lost due to work related illness and injury in 2017, which translates to a cost of around £9.7 billion to employers, the state and individuals.
This broad brush is indicative of the whole spectrum of ailments and accidents experienced by workers across industry sectors. However, employees in composites workplaces could be at greater risk of ill-health and accident due to the nature of the materials used and the environment in which they work.
While organisational frameworks for safety offer workers instructions, procedures and pathways to training and supervision, after all other controls are in place, the last line of defence for workers is Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).
A 2018 report by the artificial intelligence company, Cortexica which surveyed 100 board-level professionals directly responsible for the health and safety of workers within the construction, engineering, manufacturing and bio-medical industries indicated around 29% of workplace injuries in high-risk environments could have been prevented through the proper use of PPE.
Added to which, more than 80% of businesses functioning in hazardous environments lost money through employee injuries due to PPE non-compliance. It is therefore unsurprising absence through workplace injury or illness, employee injury claims and buying new equipment were uncovered as the biggest costs for companies following Personal Protection Equipment failure.
Why PPE is important
As the proverb says, prevention is better than cure. Exposure to sensitising products like epoxy resins (which includes adhesives, paints and coatings, sealants, inks, fillers, reinforced polymer composites and varnishes) can result in burns or inflammation of the skin and over time cause skin sensitisation and photosensitisation.
Using the correct PPE clothing can help workers avoid developing illnesses associated with high performance materials like prepregs, resins and epoxies. This can mean everything from head to toe kit like goggles, gloves, masks and coveralls and include specialist gear such as respirators, chemical protective clothing, and gas masks which protect workers lungs, eyes, hands, feet, neck and skin.
According to Dr Sue Halliwell, operations manager for Composites UK using the correct PPE to protect the workforce from hazardous situations is important to any occupation, she says: “Engineering controls and safe systems of work should be applied as a priority, but some hazards might remain, and this is where PPE is required to minimise the risk to the worker. PPE should be in addition to control measures, not instead of.
“PPE clothing can help workers to avoid developing allergies to the ‘tools of their trade’ like dermatitis which not only impacts their happiness and productivity, and potentially your profitability through absence, sick pay and litigation.”
The Health and Safety Executive report ‘Work-related skin disease in Great Britain 2018’ focuses on non-cancerous skin disease in the workplace and identifies that dermatological issues can vary in severity from a transient minor irritant to severe dermatitis and be dependent on the nature of the work.
It estimates that 7,000 annual new cases of self-reported work-related skin problems and approximates 891 new cases of occupational dermatitis reported by dermatologists in 2017. While the range of dermatological conditions differ in severity, most can be protected against with the right PPE.
The right kit for the job
Providing PPE clothing and equipment to protect your workers is a legal requirement under The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992, which means good quality PPE stored in an easily accessible location is a top-priority for every business in the composites industry.
Dr Halliwell agrees: “Employers have duties concerning the provision and use of personal protection equipment at work. Employees must be trained in the effective use of PPE and how to detect and report any faults.”
A useful resource is Composites UK online H&S management system which is designed to make it easier for users to find information relevant to the composites sector.
Keeping an eye on deterioration and that equipment is in good repair and cleaned is vital for keeping dermatological surprises at bay, as is making sure the kit in question has been supplied by professionals who understand what you need and when you need it and who are as committed to quality and safety as you are.
Knowing there is a comprehensive range of essential PPE at your fingertips could make a very real difference to your workforce and business operation.
Small changes, big results
The industry has rightly re-evaluated risks around exposure to composites in order to keep its employees safe.
The Safety in Manufacturing Plastics and Composites (SIMPLC) 2018-21 strategy aimed at building on good practice within the industry and supporting the establishment of a health and safety culture in businesses is another valuable resource with the express aim of improving the industry’s safety performance.
For policy, strategies and systems to work messages around preventative health and safety measures like PPE must be enforced and reinforced by management. Fostering positive attitudes to personal safety and protection are crucial as they reflect well on the culture of the business both internally and externally.
Updated training, robust risk assessments and fostering feedback from employees are vital. But businesses also need access to PPE which works, is delivered on time and in budget from suppliers who understand the sector within which a business works.