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New Year, New PPE? See if You Should Change Yours

As resistant as was designed to be, personal protective equipment doesn’t last forever.

When it comes to replacing PPE, manufacturer guidance remains key to identifying the product “end of life, and sometimes, it can get tricky. Here is a Q&A list to help you delay, as well as prepare for this moment, whenever it may arrive.

How long does PPE last?

Like with any other products, there’s a recommended shell life for each type of PPE. You should be skeptical of any products claiming to have an “unlimited” or indefinite “lifespan”. These claims need to be backed up by sufficient data.

Does PPE expire?

Critical PPE has a “best before” date, after which its ability to protect as designed is compromised.

Safety harnesses, disposable respirators and hard hats fall in that category. Work boots typically last 6-12 months, ear protection up to 6-8 months, eye goggle up to 3 years and hard hats, up to 5 years.

The service life of hard hats, for instance, starts when they’re worn for the first time. They don’t have the expiry date marked on them, so you need to take the manufactured date into account to estimate their longevity. The manufactured date is usually stamped on the hat, below the brim.

What’s more, every maker and every hard hat model have a recommended maximum lifespan, but this is not necessarily the date of replacement. Hard hats are exposed to a lot of wear and tear, from impact with flying objects to being knocked off a surface, so disposal might happen sooner than expected.

If a product does expire, is should be replaced, regardless of the good condition it is in.

What influences shell life?

·         How you use products

Firstly, all end-users should be trained in the use, care, maintenance, limitations and disposal of PPE. Everyone should know when, where, why and how to use the equipment to achieve the maximum level of protection. Before usage, PPE needs to be visually inspected and checked for any defects.

Improper fitting and wear of PPE also influences lifespan.

“In the field, I have seen earplugs cut in half lengthwise or shortened to the plug-in hopes of a better fit”, Kim Deason, sales representative at Honeywell says. “Altering an earplug or any PPE for that matter is throwing away any guarantee that it will work the way it was designed to. Never alter PPE. If it’s broken, replace it. If it doesn’t fit, ask for one that does.”

Wearing PPE that’s not fit for a specific application impacts product durability, but more importantly, can prove fatal. In 2015, a UK building company was fined because of an employee eye injury. The employee was wearing lightweight goggles, the ones his employer provided, but when a shard of metal flew up from a colleague’s nail gun, his glasses did not protect him. The Health and Safety Executive explained that high impact absorbing eye protection should have been provided in this case.

Re-using disposable PPE affects health, but also the product’s protective qualities. For example, disposable respirators must be discarded three years after being manufactured. But some workers still use them after this period, if they weren’t exposed to toxic gases or in case of lighter use.

·         How you care and maintain them

All PPE “should be maintained in a clean and reliable fashion”, OSHA states on their website.

PPE should be inspected regularly, to help identify damaged or malfunctioning equipment before being used. This is imperative, as giving workers a false sense of protection is more dangerous than not wearing it at all.

Harnesses and lanyards, for instance, must be inspected by a height safety equipment inspector every six months or as often as the manufacturer recommends in the instructions.

Honeywell’s Safety Suite can notify safety managers when equipment needs to be inspected. Safety Suite scans RFID-enabled PPE and pulls relevant data for each piece of equipment, such as the recommended maintenance schedule. Don’t have RFID tags for your PPE? Honeywell can provide them.

Safety harnesses and lanyards have a 10-year lifespan, however most of them are decommissioned earlier. Mistreatment, including leaving them in the sun, soiled with dirt, oil spills and burns, is often the main cause PPE effectiveness degrades. Paint, solvents and other chemicals lessen the level of protection.

When it comes to safety footwear, sweat causes moisture to build up inside the shoe. Not only is this uncomfortable, but it will deteriorate the material over time.

Having a routine maintenance task list will help extend the life of safety footwear as well as protect workers from unsafe conditions. While most workers want to quickly exit the workplace at the end of a shift, an extra 5-minutes of care for safety footwear and other personal protective equipment may represent the difference between safety and an injury on the next shift.

Thus, cleaning rules are becoming stricter in various industries. The 2020 edition of the NFPA 1851 (Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting) requires fire departments to perform two advanced cleaning cycles and at least one advanced PPE inspection in 12 months. There's even a new test method on how to gauge the effectiveness of cleaning.

Storage is also important. In some industries, there is a lack of standardization on where and how PPE is housed. This increases the odds of contamination, whether it’s safety gloves for healthcare workers or firefighter turnout gear that is being mishandled. But as a rule, end-users should store PPE according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

When do you need to replace PPE?

You need to replace PPE whenever it is broken, damaged, has been exposed to impact or is past its recommended expiry date.

For instance, when it comes to safety footwear, there’s no set mileage for when to replace it, but built-in wear-off indicators help identify when replacement is due. The National Safety Council, in the "Selection and User Guide for Protective Footwear," recommends immediately replacing impact and compression-resistant shoes if there's "evidence of physical damage" to the toe area or the shoe.

Who is responsible for replacing PPE?

Employers must pay and provide PPE, when engineering, work practice or administrative controls fail.

Conclusions

Making the most of PPE requires training and proper care. Despite being the last line of defense, protective equipment plays a crucial role in keeping people safe.

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Alexandra Serban
Content Marketing Specialist
Alexandra Serban is the Content Marketing Specialist for Honeywell Industrial Safety. A seasoned writer and digital storyteller, she is learning and reporting on industrial safety news, trends and products.