Working with specialist Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suppliers can help manufacturers to reduce health and safety risks and more

Here Richard Graham, Industry Sector Manager for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and Heavy Industries at RS, share insights into how working with suppliers who have experience of providing PPE to OEMs can help these businesses to mitigate a variety of risks.

This includes services as well as products. A supplier who offers value-added solutions such as managed inventory services, for example, does not just help an organisation to achieve more efficiency in terms of Maintenance, Repair and Operations (MRO) or even business operations more broadly – although both are important.

Such services play an important role in ensuring workplace safety too. The 1,300 senior indirect procurement professionals who contributed to the RS and Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS) Indirect Procurement Report 2021: From Disruption to Recovery stated that managed inventory services provided visibility of stock and spend (68%) and improved productivity (42%). However, they also reported these services resulted in better working practices (41%), accessible provision of PPE (40%) and better on-site safety with less walking (32%).

Before exploring mitigation, though, it is vital to establish the level of risk to workers.

Fatal injuries within manufacturing
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 142 people died in workplace accidents in Britain in 2020-21. Of this number, there were 39 deaths in construction followed by 34 in agriculture, forestry and fishing, and 20 in manufacturing. Analysis of data across a five-year period reveals that manufacturing has a fatal injury rate around 1.5 times that of the average for all industries.

Whatever the figures and trends, however, there is rightly a demand to always be improving health and safety provision. As Richard Jones, Head of Policy and Regulatory Engagement at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), points out, “Lower figures are no comfort at all to those who have lost loved ones… That is why we must continue to reduce that number further.”

Furthermore, Jones also points out that fatality rates are only one aspect of the issue. “These workplace deaths are only ever the tip of an iceberg of health and safety failure,” he says, “with further work-related road deaths and over 13,000 people dying each year from disease cause by work exposures.

“We encourage employers to ensure that they are managing the safety and health risks in their workplaces. No one should have their life cut short by work.”

PPE is the last resort
While PPE has a vital role to play in managing health and safety risks, the priority must be eliminating hazards. As Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at IOSH, stated in a recent interview, “PPE can be absolutely crucial in preventing serious harm from coming to workers. Over the years, it has prevented many a serious injury, or ill health, and worse.

“But businesses should continue to risk assess and follow the hierarchy of control to ensure that the most appropriate risk controls are in place to eliminate harm and protect people.”

“PPE should be regarded as the last resort”The Health and Safety Executive

Guidance from the HSE reiterates the same message. “PPE should be regarded as the last resort to protect against risks to health and safety,” reads its latest advice on PPE regulations. “Engineering controls and safe systems of work should be considered first.”

The HSE continues with a summary of the hierarchy of controls mentioned by Wilkinson: “Consider controls in the following order, with elimination being the most effective and PPE being the least effective:

Elimination – physically remove the hazard
Substitution – replace the hazard
Engineering controls – isolate people from the hazard
Administrative controls – change the way people work
PPE – protect the worker with personal protective equipment.”

Sharing best practice
Graham sees this hierarchy of controls being put into practice. “The heavy industries we work with engineer out the need for PPE,” he says. “In some areas, you’re seeing a decline in hearing protection because the machines are being better encapsulated. In terms of respiratory protection, there’s now better extraction.”

This affects what businesses want from their PPE suppliers. “As a result, our customers want us to support them more as consultants, bringing to them the best available products for their needs,” adds Graham.

Being able to share experiences from other organisations is a crucial part of this: “Their health and safety people may have only held that one position, but our area managers have seen the same risk in other situations and can share best practice for reducing potential hazards.”

“Best practice for managing PPE is knowledge that can be transfered to other sectors”Richard Graham, Industry Sector Manager, RS

“We’ll tell customers what has worked well for another customer in their sector and offer them a trial,” he explains. “Plus, best practice can transfer across sectors too.”

Graham shares an example of this. “Beards are very fashionable but ensuring that a mask fits well over facial hair is hard,” he begins. “We tried one that provides good respiratory protection even with a beard at a steel manufacturer and the wearers liked it, making the site more compliant. We’re now sharing this information with customers in the automotive and utilities sector as well.”

Protecting employees, protecting equipment
When you’re involved in supplying essential PPE, you become as invested in ensuring worker safety as those with in-house responsibility do. “Making sure that people get home safely every day is uppermost in all we do,” says Graham. “People’s safety is paramount for us, just as it is for health and safety managers.”

“People’s safety is paramount for us, just as it is for health and safety managers”Richard Graham, Industry Sector Manager, RS

You also understand the level of protection that PPE provides for the specialist equipment built by OEMs. “For some OEMs, it’s about reducing risk to the product from the operator too,” observes Graham. “For instance, with wind turbines, there’s lots of sensitive electronic equipment that might need protecting from the end user.”

Mitigating supply chain risks
Those with experience of supplying PPE to OEMs are aware of how important it is to ensure stock is in the right place at the right time too. “If a business doesn’t have the necessary PPE available, it can lead to a stoppage in production, the consequences of which can run into thousands of pounds,” says Graham.

“We’ve been through so much in the last few years with COVID and then supply chain issues,” says Graham. “We’re doing everything we can to mitigate any ongoing supply chain risk. We’ve invested to increase our stockholding and we’re placing forward orders with suppliers to help them plan as well.” Expertise is again vital. “We’re also trying to ensure we have approved alternatives available if there is a worst-case supply issue”.

“RS is incredibly well placed when it comes to provision of PPE for hazardous workplaces such as OEMs” concludes Graham.

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