Why PPE is the Last Line of Defense

Workplace Safety:

Why PPE is the

Last Line of Defense

Hand injuries are the number one preventable industrial accident.

So, if they’re preventable, why are hand injuries so common? And how have some companies reduced their hand injuries by 50, even 90 percent?

Believe it or not, the answer isn’t gloves. And PPE isn’t your first line of defense against hand injuries.

Rather, reducing the incidence of hand injuries in a workplace is best achieved through a process of reevaluating and redesigning your safety program using the hierarchy of controls.

Reducing + Eliminating Injuries

The hierarchy of controls outlines the process you can follow to reduce or eliminate the risk of injuries (including hand injuries) in your workplace.

This process begins with the most effective approach, which is eliminating hazards all together when possible, and offers other tactics in decreasing order of effectiveness, ending with PPE which can prevent and reduce remaining hazards.

It is important to follow the hierarchy in order, starting from the most effective, rather than choosing the easiest control measure. And while these controls can be implemented in phases over time, multiple levels of hierarchy can be adopted simultaneously, depending on the company’s logistical necessities.

Note: For a successful adoption of these measures,

a thorough and meaningful assessment of workplace hazards and the company’s current hand safety program (or lack of one) is essential.

A customized hand safety program will help prioritize effective and actionable solutions at each stage.

Now let’s take a closer look at the hierarchy of controls, and how to implement each level, starting from the top.

A new tool? A completely different approach?

How could a hazard be eliminated?

Elimination is the process of removing hazards entirely from the workplace and is considered the most effective way to protect workers from injury as the hazards are no longer present.

Hazards may be eliminated by altering where or how the task is done. When considering this option, ask yourself: can my workers perform this task more safely?

The core consideration here is to design a workspace where workers are entirely removed from the hazard.

For example:

  • Redesigning how a work task is done such as moving a task to ground level to eliminate a fall hazard
  • Removing flammable materials from areas where there is exposure to heat and fire

When a hazard cannot be eliminated from a worker’s environment, we consider substitution.

Just as the name suggest, substitution is replacing materials or pieces of equipment with those that are less hazardous.

When considering this option, ask yourself: can my workers use something less harmful to complete the same task? For example:

  • If handling highly toxic chemicals, consider substituting less toxic chemicals to minimize toxin exposure
  • Substituting sharp knives with box cutters to prevent and minimize cut injuries
  • Using mechanical instead of manual tools to avoid hand muscle strain
  • Redesigning processes to remove hazardous equipment and substitute it with “no-touch tools” to avoid hand injuries

Before implementing substitution solutions, ensure you have considered all the implications and potential risks of the new material or tool to ensure you are not trading one hazard for another.

If a certain hazard cannot be eliminated or substituted, the next best option is to use engineering controls.

Engineering controls offer protection to workers by isolating them from hazards that can lead to injuries.

When considering this option, explore choices that will make the workplace less dangerous for your workers, as you are unable to eliminate the hazard itself. This includes adding guards to machines with dangerous moving parts to safeguard arms, hand, or fingers from injury. Engineering controls can also mean placing barriers, such as a cage, around hazardous machinery, so only trained workers have access.

Could an emergency stop be added to the equipment? Can a trigger grip be added that must be held to keep the machine running, so it stops the instant the worker lets go? Can handles be added to boxes to protect fingers?

Engineering controls are a great way to reduce the risk of hand injuries when substitution and elimination is not an option. For successful adoption, however, workers still need to be aware of the risks and hazards surrounding them, especially if working around or with a hazardous machinery. This is where our next step in the hierarchy becomes important.

When considering this option,

it is important to note that the value of this control is truly realized when implemented in conjunction with other measures.

For instance, although you may substitute a more dangerous machine with a less hazardous one, the risk of injury is still present. Proper training, procedures, and guidelines on how to use the new less hazardous machine is necessary to avoid injuries.

Similarly, for tasks where gloves are mandatory the right type of gloves must be accessible and must be required to be worn at the appropriate time. All these are administrative controls are integral to the success of creating a safer workplace.

Administrative controls include things like operation-specific regulations, work schedules that reduce exposure to hazardous tasks, and systems that increase workers’ hazard awareness.

As such, administrative controls cover an exhaustive list of possibilities, including, but not limited to:

  • Warning signs, training programs, and safety checklists
  • Visual guides for safe work procedures or standard operating procedures
  • Easy access to PPE such as self-serve vending machines on worksites
  • Emergency wash stations for chemical exposure
  • Job-rotation schedules that limit hazard exposure
  • Break schedules to improve workers’ concentration
  • Ensuring proper maintenance of equipment and tools
  • Supervisory oversight and regular safety inspections
  • Practicing emergency response procedures
  • Maintaining well-organized and clean workspaces

At the bottom of the hierarchy, is your last line of defense, which is PPE.

Why is PPE at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls? Aren’t gloves, sleeves, and other PPE important to protect workers from the risk of hazards?

The answer is not a simple yes or no.

PPE is considered the final shield when all other shields have failed.

Safety managers and workers often forget to consider the other important control measures discussed above when they rely solely on PPE. This asks more of their PPE, because hazards are higher and they’re fighting more hazards than they need to.


When we take a holistic approach that addresses gaps in all safety controls—not just PPE—there are less hazards for safety gloves to fight.

This often means increased productivity and lower costs, because there are fewer and less extreme hazards in the workplace. For example, if a potentially dangerous machine already has adequate safeguards to protect its operators from cut injuries, workers may be able to complete the same tasks using less expensive, lower cut level gloves more confidently and efficiently, and without the fear of getting seriously injured.


Take the Next Step

To learn more about how to build and improve your hand safety program, check out REThinking Hand Safety, by author and Vice President of Superior Glove, Joe Geng.

If you still have questions or concerns about your company’s current hand safety program, or lack thereof, contact our safety experts to request a free 1-on-1. Our hand safety specialists will assess your teams’ work environment and provide resources to help you develop and implement a hand safety program that reduces injuries. Our specialists partner with you from the top of the hierarchy and work together to explore options that address each level on the way down to PPE.

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