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Make No Haste in PPE Selection for Waste Workers

by Julie on April 9, 2014

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“Now can you imagine having to stick your hands into that pile of junk?” That’s what my tour guide chuckled while walking me through one of the biggest electronic recycling plants in Canada. This state-of-the-art recycling facility processes electronic e-waste—meaning all types of consumer equipment like radios, televisions, hi-fi equipment, camcorders and musical instruments. It also includes telecommunications equipment like computers, laptops, copying equipment, telephones and whatever else happens to be dumped into their receiving depot.

The first step in the process of this mega operation is to literally dig your hands in, and start sorting. The purchasing manager (responsible for equipping the workers with their hand protection) shows me the first sorting area of the plant, where large metal disposable containers are brought in with all kinds of discarded metal, glass, plastic, garbage and even the odd animal who perished in his scavenging.

The biggest risks these workers face are punctures and lacerations. Cut and abrasion risks come from using tools and knives to remove anti-break coatings on florescent lamps, and sharp edges on items as they are being dismantled, or if they’re broken.

Many occupational health risks and hazards are associated with work in the waste and recycling industry. Hand protection here is critical, or rather, proper hand protection is. And that doesn’t just mean complying with the approved rating and fabric required for the job, it means considering fit, design and function. I’m told on this visit that nine out of ten injuries incurred at this facility happened when a worker wasn’t wearing his PPE. Come again? How could someone working in this environment possibly function without the proper gloves?

Well, the “dig-in-hands-first” guys are obviously not the only type of worker in the plant. In other areas, workers handle the movement of materials from one place to another, and others reposition and handle materials moving along on conveyor belts. Many of these workers wear cut-resistant sleeves. If you know anything about protective sleeves, you know they can be many things – and that includes uncomfortable, itchy, hot and darn right annoying. This is where proper PPE selection comes into play: glove and sleeve selection can’t just meet the safety ratings, they have to meet the wearer’s expectations too. Because in the past the sleeves this plant was using felt hot and uncomfortable, workers occasionally removed them. Clearly, this was a problem.

Not considering the whole picture (which includes comfort and adoption) results in a lack of compliance and therefore an increase in injuries. I may be wearing newly purchased work boots with the price tag still flapping in the back, but I can put two and two together pretty quickly.

The purchasing manager tells me that since evaluating PPE selection beyond the mere paper value – they’ve had a 99% increase in safety. Incredible. So how do you make sure your selected PPE will ensure safety and compliance then? First, do start with the stats.

Do you know what kind of puncture-resistant glove you need? Are you choosing the right kind according to safety and industry standards?
One thing to remember is this: there is no such thing as puncture PROOF when it comes to gloves, which is why the term ‘resistant’ is used instead.

Here are a few things to consider when selecting puncture-resistant work gloves:

Choose According to the Right Puncture Standard
– Large object puncture threat: EN 388:1994
– Fine object puncture threat: ASTM 1342 modified standard

If you are dealing with larger objects that pose a puncture threat (lumber industry, metal fabrication, waste collection) you should choose a glove that has been tested according to EN 388:1994 puncture standard, which uses a relatively large needle probe.

If you are dealing with fine sharp objects such as medical needles, you need to ignore the EN 388:1994 puncture standard and instead select a glove that has been tested according to ASTM 1342 modified standard (.25-gauge medical needle). Most qualified glove manufacturers will be able to provide you with this kind of data, and help walk you through the details.

Palm or Full Coverage?

Most puncture gloves only protect the palm area of the hand, which is okay for many applications — just be sure you are aware of this and that workers don’t have a false sense of invincibility with these gloves. Full-coverage puncture gloves are also available from some manufacturers, but the trade off is they tend to be higher in price and comfort and dexterity becomes slightly diminished.

Don’t Forget Comfort
Once you’ve figured out the right puncture standard, ensure you have the most comfortable glove possible (and remember that comfort is a relative term when talking about puncture gloves). No amount of cajoling or incentives will get your team to wear uncomfortable gloves.

The performance of glove materials can vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, so base your selection on the correct manufacturers’ data.

The waste and recycling industry currently employs over 350,000 workers in the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics). It’s a high risk industry that continues to grow as our society moves to a greener way of life and a higher propensity towards all kinds of recycling. That’s why we must continue to make worker health and safety a priority, considering all aspects of PPE and employee comfort. So when someone is asked, “Stick your hands into that pile of junk,” we know it is done as safely as possible!

*As published in Occupational Health and Safety Magazine

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