Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment (PPE) includes such items as lab coats, gloves, safety footwear, safety glasses, safety helmets, respiratory protection etc. that individuals may wear to protect themselves against various hazards.
It is a general principle within safety legislation that PPE may only be used as the primary means of protecting workers against risks in circumstances where, despite the application of all other reasonably practicable ways to eliminate, or reduce the risk, a significant residual risk still remains. Where the use of PPE is contemplated as a primary way of limiting workers' exposure to a hazard, unit managers must ensure that risk assessments have been carried out and that all other reasonably practicable means of controlling personal exposure have been adopted. Risk assessments should clearly indicate whenever the use of PPE is considered to be an essential requirement.
Even in ideal conditions PPE does not provide absolute protection but is capable only of reducing exposure to varying degrees. Some types of equipment have a published "Protection Factor" which should be taken into account when matching PPE to the risk. Information within suppliers' catalogues and from sales specialists will help with selection of suitable equipment. Those responsible for selecting equipment must ensure it is suitable for the risk, is of appropriate quality and fits the wearer correctly. (see RPE section below for additional information on use of respiratory protective equipment.) Users will normally need to be provided with training in the use of any equipment.
The actual effectivness of the equipment under normal working conditions should be critically assessed as its actual performance, particularly if it is ill-fitting and incorrectly used, may be significantly less than its theoretical protection factor.
Where PPE is considered essential for safe working, use of PPE is mandatory and managers and supervisors must enforce its use. In such circumstances employees must be supplied with any essential PPE free of charge. (This does not apply to undergraduate students who may be required to provide their own equipment for some courses.)
This HSE leaflet provides some useful additional advice on the use of PPE.
As a general principle, the use of lab coats within laboratory environments is considered to be appropriate both as a matter of good laboratory practice as well as for specific safety reasons.
Respiratory protective equipment (RPE)
Many types of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) rely on a tight face seal for their effectiveness (e.g. dust masks and respirators). Such equipment cannot legally be used to protect workers against a hazardous contaminant unless a “face-fit” test has been carried out on each user to ensure that the particular piece of equipment specified fits properly and provides a good seal. A leaking respirator will be ineffective and it is therefore a legal requirement that the effectiveness of the seal is verified for each individual user. Commercial suppliers of equipment can usually arrange for the necessary test.
Note that this test isn't needed when using equipment, such as air-fed helmets, that do not need an airtight face seal to be effective.
Only RPE that conforms to an appropriate European Standard may be used as a COSHH control measure. ("Nuisance" dust masks may not conform to any standard and the use of these should be avoided where genuine safety risk exists.)
HSE has produced a guidance booklet on selection and use of RPE. This can be viewed here: "Respiratory protective equipment at work: a practical guide." (HSG53)