The Safety and Quality of Personal Protective Equipment
The clothes we wear can send a statement. Vivid patterns can convey mood; contrasting colors and textures can showcase creativity, and inspire; unique head and foot wear can razzle-dazzle, entice, and express individuality. But when it comes to work, specifically outdoor work, the clothing we wear serves a more practical yet far less glamorous purpose: protection.
In essence, the clothes we wear is a serious matter.
Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, refers to clothing or equipment designed to minimize exposure to occupational hazards. It is the last line of defense for workers against workplace injury and illness. Oftentimes, farmworkers handle or come in to contact with chemicals, pesticides, and livestock; they operate hand tools, heavy farming machinery and equipment, like tractors and threshers. On any given day, dust, extreme heat or cold, UV rays, toxic fumes, and biohazards can compromise worker wellbeing. Studies suggest that, as a result, farmworkers are at an increased risk of developing chronic illnesses, including reproductive health issues, certain cancers, asthma, musculoskeletal pain and neurobehavioral disorders.
As far as protection goes, prevention is key. Recognizing workplace hazards is critical to keeping workers safe on the job. As of 2008, OSHA requires employers to supply, maintain, sanitize and inspect worker PPE at no cost to employees. However, this excludes, “everyday clothing, such as long-sleeve shirts, long pants, street shoes, and normal work boots; or ordinary clothing, skin creams, or other items, used solely for protection from weather, such as winter coats, jackets, gloves, parkas, rubber boots, hats, raincoats, ordinary sunglasses, and sunscreen.” This places the burden of selecting, purchasing, and maintaining critical work gear on the worker. Not to mention, EPA requires that pesticide handlers (i.e. employees) read the pesticide labels and learn what kind of PPE they have to use when handling each kind of chemical.
Some essential farmworker PPE includes gloves, dust masks, long sleeved shirt and pants, wide brimmed hat, closed-toe heavy-duty shoes or boots, and eye protection. Pretty straight forward common-sense knowledge, right? Not exactly.
In fact, ill-fitting or insufficient PPE can pose short term imminent threats as well as long term implications to your health. Translation: not all PPE is good PPE. And the wrong PPE can do more harm than good.
When PPE Goes Bad
On September 18, 2015, 51-year-old Olmedo died while harvesting hazelnuts on a farm in Oregon. Following an investigation, it was determined that “Olmedo was operating a tractor pulling the implement which stores nuts harvested from the ground. Inside the hopper was an auger that turned to move the nuts. Olmedo apparently leaned into the hopper at which time loose clothing was caught in the auger and he was pulled into the hopper.”
Whether an untucked shirt, untied laces, unsecured hair, unzipped jacket, hooded sweatshirts, or dangly chains, high-powered exposed rotating machinery doesn’t discriminate and can ensnare any of it, sucking it in and restricting movement. At an average speed of 540 rotations per minute, a rotating shaft can tether seven feet of fabric in one second. At the very least, loose or baggy clothing can cause slips, trips, or falls, but, at the extreme, it can compromise breathing, break or amputate limbs, or cause death.
PPE cannot protect if it doesn’t fit. The tractor safety training provided by AFOP’s Health and Safety Programs recommends workers wear fitted clothing to prevent getting caught in the gears and equipment.
It’s the Thread Count that Counts
In addition to properly fitted clothing, we must consider PPE quality and condition. Toiling eight to 12 hours under the sun’s powerful UV rays is exhausting. The short-term effects of prolonged sun exposure include painful burns and heat illness. The long-term effects can lead to deleterious health effects and accumulate hefty medical expenses. Again, prevention is our best defense.
Typically, hats, long-sleeved shirts, and pants are worn to protect against excessive sunlight. However, not all PPE is made equal. Like the heavy rotating shaft of a combine, the sun doesn’t distinguish between the sun-parched field crop and exposed skin. Additionally, skin is the largest organ of the body. Covering the body, e.g., legs, torso, arms, and feet, limits but does not eliminate the sun factor. Parts of the body that are often overlooked include the small of the back, wrists, hands, neckline, and the nape of the neck, leading to cumulative and irreversible damage.
Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) indicates how effectively a product absorbs UV rays. The higher the rating, the better it will protect. For example, a shirt with a UPF of 3 will not protect nearly as well as one with a UPF of 50. So, how do we determine which shirt is best for filtering out the rays? The Skin Cancer Foundation explains:
“That white T-shirt you slip on at the beach when you feel your skin burning provides only moderate protection from sunburn, with an average ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 7. At the other end of the spectrum, a long-sleeved dark denim shirt offers an estimated UPF of 1,700 – which amounts to a complete sun block. In general, clothing made of tightly-woven fabric best protects skin from the sun. The easiest way to test if a fabric can protect your skin is to hold it up to the light. If you can see through it, then UV radiation can penetrate it – and your skin.”
Surprisingly, darker colored fabric is better at protecting. A green shirt has a UPF of 10 versus a white cotton shirt with seven, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. A low thread count, like in the first image below, provides little protection that, if worn in the sun, may provide a false sense of security. Whereas, the high thread count and tightly woven fabric as seen in the second image will provide significantly more protection.
AFOP Health and Safety believes strongly in smart PPE for farmworkers. That’s why we hold an annual long-sleeve shirt drive during National Farmworker Awareness Week. Each year at the end of March/beginning of April, we collect and distribute thousands of shirts so that farmworkers can have the tools to better protect themselves from heat stress and pesticide exposure. Click here to learn more and to join the effort!
Ultimately, we are our own best advocate. Staying safe and healthy on the job requires vigilance. Inspect clothing before and after wear; wear properly sized fitted shirts and pants. It may seem tedious, but your future self will thank you.
Sources on PPE for continued reading: