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4 Reasons Why Workers Aren't Wearing PPE (And What to Do)

12/21/23

There are a lot of excuses for not wearing PPE at work. “It slows me down.” “It doesn’t fit right.” “It’s uncomfortable in the heat.” And on and on.

And while it’s important to make sure that workers’ PPE is right for the weather, the task and their different body types, you can’t stop there. The problem with noncompliance usually goes deeper than the gear.

Managers and supervisors who are tired of hearing excuses might want to start looking in the mirror. A paper published in the Journal of Safety Research in 2023 found 16 different factors that drive PPE noncompliance, and most of the critical factors had to do with safety management and supervision.

The researchers used focus groups of nearly 200 construction-industry safety experts to rank the importance of these factors and develop actionable strategies to remedy them.

Based on that research, here are four management problems that may be driving PPE noncompliance in your organization – and what you can do to help improve the situation.

Management Problem 1: Inadequate Safety Supervision 

If supervisors are reluctant to insist that workers wear PPE, or if workers take off their PPE as soon as the boss is out of sight, you might be dealing with inadequate safety supervision.

Why is it happening? According to the authors of the Journal of Safety Research study, supervisors may be giving workers a pass on PPE compliance because they want to maintain good relationships, thinking that this will make it easier to finish projects on time.

Supervisors may also be relying entirely on transactional leadership, which is based on rewarding workers for meeting specific goals. While this leadership style can be practical and effective, it may not be suitable for conveying the intrinsic value of safety compliance.

What You Can Do About It

Leading by example can be effective. Supervisors can model good safety practices even when there's a tight deadline. And by offering positive reinforcement when they see workers doing the right thing, they can support the values that will help them do the right thing when no one is looking.

And accountability is key. This is as true for supervisors as it is for the people they supervise. According to the Journal of Safety Research Study, one step to improve the quality of safety supervision is to encourage, measure and monitor frontline supervisor accountability.

Another important step is to give supervisors the tools they need and to put them in an environment that sets them up for success. By providing safety resources such as designated site safety representatives and by supporting clear and professional communication between supervisors and workers, management can help improve the quality of safety supervision.

Management Problem 2: Infrequent Safety Training 

If workers don’t really know how to use their PPE, or if they don’t understand the safety laws that apply to their worksite, you might be dealing with inadequate safety training. According to the authors of the Journal of Safety Research Study, most workers who don’t have safety training say that they’re either working for themselves or for small companies that don’t have formal safety training programs. But frequency of training is something that companies of all sizes should think about.

What You Can Do About It

First, make sure that workers are getting trained. OSHA has many downloadable resources for trainings and tool box talks. Give safety training when new people are hired and when PPE is provided. And give yearly refresher trainings, too. Many OSHA standards have their own training requirements, too.

It’s also important that managers support safety education and outreach programs.

Management Problem 3: Weak Support for Safety

If no one is enforcing labor laws and making sure contractors follow regulations, or if management isn’t providing adequate PPE and recognizing good safety practices, you might be dealing with a lack of management support, according to the Journal of Safety Research study.

What it comes down to is that management just isn’t as committed to safety as they should be. This is one of the hallmarks of a weak safety culture. In fact, management commitment to safety is a well-known leading indicator of worker safety behaviors and injuries.

What You Can Do About It

When management commitment to safety is lacking, part of the problem might be that the stakes aren’t fully understood, according to the study in the Journal of Safety Research. Explaining the financial cost and reputational risk of workplace injuries can help make the value of PPE compliance clearer. There are many resources that can support the business case for safety, such as the OSHA tool that estimates how workplace injuries can affect a company’s profitability.

Another important step is to encourage management to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Bringing in managers to demonstrate proper PPE use, for example, can help make their commitment to safety visible to everyone on the jobsite.

And the benefits of strong management commitment to safety can go far beyond safety performance. One study found that when employees believe management values their safety and well-being, they are more satisfied with their jobs and more committed to the company.

Learn more about the ways Grainger can help you discover environmental, health and safety solutions for the workplace.

Management Problem 4: Poor PPE Evaluation

If workers don't want to wear their PPE because it's uncomfortable, it doesn't fit or it's poor quality, you may be dealing with PPE that's just not right for the job.

So why is this a management problem? It indicates that workers are recognizing issues with the PPE they're given, even if management doesn't. And if management isn't seeing the issues, they probably aren't looking carefully enough.

What You Can Do About It

First, remember that workplace hazard assessments for PPE selection are not "one and done." Job tasks can change, and PPE design is always evolving. It's important to repeat workplace hazard assessments to make sure that workers really have the best PPE for the job.

And it's also important to include workers in the PPE selection process. Making them feel like their voices are being heard can help drive buy-in.

Finally, the Journal of Safety Research article also recommends improving the supply of PPE by adding more sizes and styles.

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.