School districts are working hard to support social distancing efforts while providing a quality education during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In a previous post, we explained how staff can make their home offices safer. Employees who cannot work remotely are also being exposed to hazards associated with the pandemic.
Think about how often transportation staff touch door handles and steering wheels, custodial employees use hazardous chemicals to disinfect facilities, and warehouse workers interact with potentially ill delivery drivers. If you follow these tips, you can leverage personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep your employees safe.
Get the most out of PPE
Successful PPE programs are driven by knowledgeable, empowered staff. Before they start work, employees should demonstrate they know when to use PPE, how to use it, how to inspect it, how to maintain it, and perhaps most importantly, how to work within its limitations.
Tip 1. Consider PPE your last line of defense
Hazard control strategies are not created equally. That is why safety professionals rely on the hierarchy of controls. Under the hierarchy, eliminating hazards or reducing employees’ exposure are the most effective ways to keep them safe.
To protect against the coronavirus, schools have equipped staff to work from home. They have also reminded onsite employees to maintain six feet of separation, wash their hands frequently, and cough into their elbow. All are solid, preferred control strategies.
Here are a few other measures to consider:
- Improve indoor air quality.
- Consider ultraviolet light systems
- Stagger onsite employee shifts to limit interaction.
- Provide no-touch trash cans and soap dispensers.
- Replace harmful cleaning chemicals with less-hazardous options when possible.
Way down at the bottom of the hierarchy sits PPE, largely because of its limitations. For example, improper fit or use of respirators and other PPE compromises its effectiveness. Equipment could also be damaged or defective. When you have identified all other available control measures, explore PPE as a last line of defense.
Tip 2 Select the right PPE for the job
PPE provides head-to-toe protection. A job safety analysis (JSA) can help supervisors choose the right protective equipment by uncovering the hazards associated with each step in a task. Along with JSAs, make sure to consult equipment manuals, user guides, and chemical safety data sheets for guidance on choosing PPE.
Manuals and guides can also alert you to potential health issues associated with protective equipment. On one end of the spectrum, protective gloves could trigger uncomfortable skin reactions. On the other end, respirators can result in serious health complications for employees who have breathing-related medical conditions, vision problems, or even claustrophobia.
Tip 3. Inspect and maintain PPE
Damaged PPE can give employees a false sense of security. Show them how to inspect it before and after each use. Examples include holes or rips in disposable gloves and scratched or cracked eye and face protection. If employees identify damaged equipment, they should tag it, remove it from use, and immediately report it to their supervisor.
Routine maintenance can go a long way toward keeping PPE in good working condition. User manuals should explain how to care for equipment and store it safely. Common maintenance activities include:
- Cleaning safety glasses and goggles regularly with mild soap and water
- Line-drying high-visibility vests used at meal and homework pick-up locations to extend the life of reflective tape
- Storing respirators where they are protected from dust, light, heat, cold, moisture, and chemicals
- Washing cloth masks thoroughly every day with soap and water or laundry detergent.
Some equipment needs to be discarded in a way that does not harm people or the environment. That includes disposable gloves, aprons, and smocks that have been exposed to hazardous chemicals.
Tip 5. Enforce consistent use
In 2014, a delivery driver was dropping off supplies at a construction site. Without warning, a one-pound tape measure fell from 50 stories above, struck him on the head, and killed him. The driver had left his hard hat in the truck.
This tragic story underscores the importance of enforcing consistent use of personal protective equipment. The reasons employees cite for avoiding PPE are as varied as the types of equipment on the market. Some argue it slows them down, it’s uncomfortable, or it doesn’t fit. Others reason they’ve done the task hundreds of times without PPE, and they’ve never gotten injured.
Set clear expectations about PPE use in your policies and procedures. If equipment interferes with employees’ vision, hearing, breathing, or sense of touch, they should notify a supervisor before using it.
Tip 6. Monitor your inventory
Health care professionals treating patients who have symptoms of the coronavirus face a dire shortage of PPE. Some districts have generously donated to help fill gaps. If you choose to do the same, maintain enough equipment to meet your employees’ needs.
Explore more resources
Fund Workers’ Compensation program members benefit from no-cost online training courses, including a course that teaches employees how to use personal protective equipment properly. Members can also log into myTASB and download our Safety Kit titled Personal Protective Equipment: Your Last Line of Defense. The resource empowers supervisors to deliver training in as few as 15 minutes. The online course and Safety Kit include quizzes you can keep with your training records.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2020. It has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.