Safety Equipment Makers Cite Role in Controlling Ebola

By Steve Bates Dec 9, 2014
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Manufacturers of personal safety equipment say the industry has responded well to the fight against the fatal Ebola disease, supplying crucially needed protective gear to prevent infections among medical personnel on the front lines in West Africa and at hospitals in the U.S.

“We’ve been working closely with your companies and a number of agencies” to determine exactly what equipment health care professionals need, Daniel K. Shipp, president of the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), told attendees at the association’s fall meeting on Dec. 4, 2014, in Alexandria, Va.

“You never see any reports that the PPE [personal protective equipment] failed,” stated Shipp. Instead, “It’s ‘How can we get it?’ ”

Shipp noted that “none of us came into 2014 with a strategic plan to deal with the Ebola disease” but that the industry has met the urgent need with flying colors. “This is what we do every day for workers around the world.”

Speaker William G. Perry, director of the Directorate of Standards and Guidance for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), thanked ISEA and its members for their response to the Ebola outbreak and said that OSHA continues to be active in the effort to protect workers from contracting the virus.

“This has been a real challenge for OSHA,” said Perry. “We have been working very closely with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and with NIOSH [the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] on this.” In addition, “We’ve been producing a lot of guidance. We’ve been reviewing all of the guidance coming through from CDC and NIOSH. It’s really been a very coordinated effort.”

Perry said OSHA had just released a “PPE matrix” that details appropriate protective equipment for various users and scenarios related to Ebola. “The matrix is not restricted just to health care. We’ve been having a lot of discussions with labor groups that are outside the health care industry. They’re very concerned about their exposure potential,” he said. “It’s flight attendants. It’s people who have to clean the planes. Waste disposal is another area.”

Perry went on to outline key items in OSHA’s fall 2014 update of its regulatory agenda that relate to safety equipment. They include:

  • Rules on crystalline silica and beryllium.
  • Improvements to infectious disease protocols in health care and other high-risk environments.
  • A Standards Improvement Project impacting construction rules, including proper fit of equipment worn by women.
  • Communication tower safety.

Perry said the silica rule was in the final review stage and that a proposed standard on beryllium could be released as early as January 2015. He said a “cleanup” of construction rules focuses in part on the fit of personal protective equipment for women. He said some gear designed for men does not fit women well and that the problem has been linked to workplace fatalities.

Regarding communication towers, Perry said that they “are going up everywhere” and that “we’ve been frankly very alarmed” by fatalities on them. “We really think we need to look at a regulatory solution here.”

After Perry spoke, a Northrop Grumman executive discussed his facility’s improvements in safety, which led to a streak of 1.3 million hours of employee work without a lost workday. Marty Thompson, site director at the Lake Charles (La.) Maintenance and Modification Center for Northrop Grumman Technical Services, said the campaign to improve safety was “something really born out of necessity.”

Data showed that an injury would occur every 3.6 days among the approximately 600 employees at his 1 million-square-foot site, where the company services aircraft for the Air Force and other customers. But the data had limitations. “We didn’t know where it was going to happen,” he said. Many of the injuries, such as lacerations, could be attributed to inadequate personal safety equipment or failure to use such equipment, according to Thompson.

He and other site leaders met with employees to try to understand why injuries were occurring and to seek solutions. Thompson and his colleagues “put it in very simple terms,” such as saying, “How about we just go today without an injury? Pay attention today. Use your PPE today. Let’s get through today and see if we can get to tomorrow. Then when we get to tomorrow, we’ll have the same conversation: OK, we made it yesterday; let’s do the same thing today; let’s see how many days we can go.”

Conversations revealed that some technicians were not wearing protective gloves because the ones they had been issued were not flexible enough and did not provide enough feel for the work. “We said, ‘There are better gloves. If we get you better gloves, will you wear better gloves?’ They said ‘yeah.’ ”

As injuries declined, “It almost became a little bit of a game,” recalled Thompson. “It became a healthy competition within the workgroups.” None of the groups wanted to be “the one to break the roll, to have to start the clock over.”

Improving safety “is not always about what you measure,” he said. “It’s how you communicate what is measured that drives performance.”

Steve Bates is a freelance journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.​

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