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Construction PPE would need to fit better under proposed rule

Rule changes proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor would seek to clarify the personal protective equipment (PPE) standard for the construction industry. The proposed change would clarify that PPE must fit each employee properly to protect them from occupational hazards.

As it now stands, the standard does not state clearly that PPE must fit each affected employee properly — as general industry and maritime standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) do.

The proposed rule clarifies the existing requirement, which states that protective equipment “shall be provided, used, and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary.”

Local observers applauded the proposed changes with some reservations. While the Labor Department says that OSHA does not expect the change to increase employers’ costs or compliance burdens, Polly Friendshuh, academic dean of construction sciences and business with Dunwoody Institute, wonders how that’s possible.

“As a woman who has worked in the field, I can say that having better-fitting equipment would be huge,” she said. “But looking at the flip side, I can see the economics of it. For owners, there’s an added cost, including manufacturing. You can’t eliminate those things. There are some unintended consequences to the proposal.”

OSHA’s cost analysis of the proposal said that the one-time cost of it to the construction industry, attributable to potential changes in employer behavior, would be around $545,000.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the approximately 7.7 million people employed in the U.S. construction industry, about 14% are female. An announcement of the proposed revisions noted that failure of standard-sized PPE to protect physically smaller workers properly, as well as problems with access to properly fitting PPE, have long been a source of safety and health concerns.

“The choice of PPE is as important as how the PPE fits,” said Matt Semerad, director of safety services and education at Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. “Much of the equipment that we bring to the job site for personal protection, if it doesn’t fit correctly, it doesn’t protect the employee.”

One potential hang-up pointed to by Semerad is enforcement of any new rules. The Construction Industry Safety Coalition has noted in the past that in many cases, whether PPE properly fits would be hard for employers to assess.

“[T]he subjective nature of this standard would greatly increase the potential for enforcement actions without giving employers fair notice of what is required,” CISC wrote to OSHA in 2017.

“As I read the proposal, I think of not only gloves, but also respiratory protection, hearing protection, hard hats and safety vests,” said Semerad. “There are different degrees of severity among violations, and I don’t know how they’ll be punished.”

Semerad said he couldn’t cite figures reflecting how often poorly fitting equipment leads to injuries but could anecdotally recall such instances from his days on the job.

Likewise, Friendshuh said that at least once her ears were rubbed raw by an ill-fitting hard hat, to the point where one employer special-ordered a hat that would fit her.

“I know that when I would show up at a shop, they would have mainly medium, large and XL,” she said. “People come in so many different shapes and sizes. You’re less apt to wear equipment that doesn’t fit right.”

Despite misgivings about the details, Semerad said he supports the proposed changes.

“It’s important that we look at this thing,” he said. “I’ve seen video of people with loose safety vests getting caught in machinery, which is terrifying. It should be acknowledged that safety equipment that doesn’t fit properly can create a hazard. I’m on board with it; I’m just not sure exactly how it’s going to pan out.”

Those concerned have until Sept. 18 to submit comments and hearing requests via the Federal eRulemaking Portal, and are asked to refer to Docket No. OSHA-2019-0003 l. The entire proposal can be seen at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2023/07/20/2023-15285/personal-protective-equipment-in-construction.

“We look forward to hearing from stakeholders on this issue as we ensure that construction workers of all genders and sizes are fitted properly with safety gear,” stated Doug Parker, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health at the Labor Department.

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