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Precautions such as the safe movement of plant and cranes, shoring up groundworks and ensuring that all the various contractors onsite work together safely are vital, but one area of huge importance is the provision of suitable PPE. Thomas Tevlin from British Safety Council explains why…

PPE remains one of the most powerful tools in the safety manager’s armoury. Virtually everyone working on a construction site – from tradespeople to architects and surveyors – need to wear some form of PPE to protect themselves.

The main reason for this is the fact that PPE can protect against a vast range of construction hazards that can cause physical harm – from falling tools striking the head; concrete blocks landing on the feet or ankles; and sharp objects, chemicals or cement damaging the skin of the hands.

But importantly, PPE not only protects workers from physical injury, it can also prevent them from developing serious and even fatal health problems.

For example, ear defenders will protect site workers from suffering hearing loss caused by exposure to loud power tools; while respiratory equipment such as face masks can stop harmful and sometimes deadly substances such as asbestos fibres and brick dusts from entering the lungs.

However, while PPE is clearly essential in ensuring the safety of building workers, it is important that it is not used as a short-cut to dealing with health and safety problems on site. indeed, health and safety law clearly states that, whenever possible, employers should firstly introduce control measures – such as safe systems of work – which control or avoid risks, thereby removing or reducing the need for PPE. Only if this proves impossible should PPE be issued to staff.

If PPe is required, employers need to be aware they face a number of other legal duties relating to its correct provision and use, which are set out in the Personal Protective equipment at Work Regulations 1992, the main set of regulations in this area.

For a start, the right type of PPE must be selected for the task in hand; everyone must be properly
trained in how to correctly use, store and maintain it; and suitable steps must be taken to ensure PPE remains in good condition and is replaced if necessary.

All of this is vital because unless PPE is properly assessed before use to ensure that it is suitable, and everyone knows how to use and look after it properly, it is unlikely to provide the required level of protection.

Risk assessment
Before choosing or issuing any type of PPE, employers therefore need to carry out a careful assessment of the hazards and risks at work and the various types of PPE available, so they can identify the most suitable types of equipment for the task in hand.

Factors to take into account include: *The hazard – what it is and the length of exposure to it *The needs of the job and the demands it places on the wearer *The working environment and surrounding conditions – for example, heating, noise, atmospheric conditions and the weather if working outside *The person being exposed – their physical dimensions and any relevant health issues *The compatibility of the equipment – if more than one piece of PPE is being used, it is important that one does not hinder the other’s correct operation

*Ensuring that the equipment can be adjusted to fit the wearer correctly.

Once the potential hazards have been identified, there may be several types of PPE that would be suitable forms of protection, and suppliers and retailers will usually be happy to provide advice on the options available to the site manager. however, it is important to involve the workforce in the entire selection process, since they are often be best placed to understand the type of PPE required and any problems that might arise when wearing it. This will also increase the chances of workers accepting the PPE and wearing it when necessary.

A wide variety of different PPE is available for construction workers, from head and foot protection through to gloves, high visibility clothing and respirators,and a number of specific points should be taken into account when selecting each type and when training workers to use and maintain them.

Safety helmets
Arguably the most common type of PPE associated with construction work is the humble safety helmet or ‘hard hat’, which protects against falling objects and from banging the head on overhead obstacles such as scaffolding poles and formwork inside buildings. While hard hats are one of the simplest forms of PPE, employers nevertheless need to ensure that the type of helmet selected is compatible with other PPE and is suitable for the work being done. For example, if a face mask needs to be worn at the same time as a hard hat, the design of the hat must allow the two pieces of equipment to be worn safely and in comfort.

Meanwhile, a helmet with chin straps should be provided if a job involves working in windy conditions or repeated bending down or looking upwards.

Another major safety issue during construction activities is the threat of hand and finger injuries – for example, from contact with sharp or rough edges while lifting materials or objects – or skin damage from contact with hazardous substances such as wet cement, acrylic sealants, bitumen and asphalt. As well as protecting against these hazards, gloves can also help shield the skin and hands from frost and chills in cold weather, a common problem during the winter months.

High visibility clothing high-vis clothing, which alerts plant and machinery drivers and crane operators of the presence of people working nearby, and unsurprisingly, is mandatory on most construction sites. hi-vis comes in three classes of basic design (classes 1, 2 and 3) and two levels of retroreflectivity (level 1 and level 2). Class 3 incorporates the largest areas of fluorescent and reflective materials and Level 2 gives the highest reflectivity, so a garment at class 3/level 2 offers the highest overall level of protection.

Hearing protection
Construction workers are frequently exposed to high levels of noise from powered hand tools and mobile plant and machinery, and if noise approaches certain pre-set levels, employers have a duty to provide hearing protection in the form of devices such as earplugs and ear defenders.

Hearing protection is, however, only effective if it is worn by the workers in question, so employers need to think carefully about the kind of protection they provide and how they will encourage their employees to wear it. Good practice tips for achieving wearer acceptance include providing a range of protectors so that employees can choose those ones which suit them best; avoiding protectors which cut out too much noise, as this can cause isolation, or lead to an unwillingness to wear them; and targeting the use of hearing protectors to the noisy tasks and jobs in a working day.

Be safe
PPE is an essential part of the safety precautions in most industries, and with 42 construction workers losing their lives in 2009/10, and thousands more suffering serious injury and ill health, it is clear that its provision in construction can help make sites safer.

However, it is important to note that the task of providing PPE does not end with the selection and issuing of the equipment: everyone who wears PPE must be properly trained and instructed in its correct use and maintenance; maintenance systems must be established; and adequate storage facilities must be provided. employers should also remember that all PPE must be provided to employees free of charge: employees cannot be made to pay for any PPE they need to do their work safely.

This rule also applies to agency workers if they are legally regarded as the firm’s employees: the only exception is genuinely self-employed workers, for whom a charge can be levied.

The British safety Council is a registered charity with a mission to support a safer, healthier and more sustainable society. For more information visit:

Last Updated on April 11, 2021
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