What to Know About Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 03, 2022
4 min read

You may use personal protective equipment (PPE) and not realize it. It’s everywhere, guaranteeing your safety from burns and bruises. 

When you think of PPE, you may think about face masks and hazmat suits. But you can find PPE in everyday activities around your home.
Common types of PPE are:

What is the purpose of personal protective equipment? PPE is equipment that protects from hazards in the environment. PPE may not mitigate dangers entirely, but it minimizes a hazard’s health effects.

PPE in the workplace. PPE more commonly describes protection from workplace hazards, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) focuses on.

OSHA has specific standards and protocols regarding PPE. The gloves you wear while doing yard work may protect you, but for workplace PPE, OSHA has stringent requirements in place.

OSHA created a list of eight basic hazards for employers to guide hazard assessments. PPE protects you from these basic hazards.

  1. Impact: getting hit by something, like falling objects
  2. Penetration: getting cut or stabbed
  3. Compression: being rolled over by something, like a wheel over your foot
  4. Chemical: handling chemicals that may hurt your skin or have dangerous fumes
  5. Heat/cold: burning or freezing yourself due to extreme temperatures
  6. Harmful dust: inhaling dangerous debris, such as from sanding or demolition
  7. Light radiation: being exposed to dangerous bright lights, such as from welding or metal cutting
  8. Biologic: coming into contact with blood or other biological substances

You generally categorize PPE in two ways: which hazards it protects you from and what part of your body it protects. OSHA separates PPE into these types:

  • Eye and face protection
  • Head protection
  • Food and leg protection
  • Hand and arm protection
  • Body protection
  • Hearing protection

Respirators are a type of PPE that filters airborne particles from the air you breathe. Some respirators have an air supply, like a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

PPE has distinct requirements and standards. There are examples below of PPE, but they must meet OSHA standards to be effective forms of PPE in the workplace.  

Eyes and face. Safety goggles and some face shields protect your eyes from debris, fumes, and injury. Goggles must be tight-fitting to protect your eyes. 

Safety glasses can protect you from flying debris, but they might not stop fumes or dust. 

Welding shields protect your eyes and face from the light, heat, and dust made by welding. The lens of a welding shield needs to be tinted appropriately for your work.

Head. Hard hats protect your head from penetration and impact. There are three classes of hard hats:

  • Class A protects you from impact, penetration, and voltage.
  • Class B protects from impact, penetration, and higher voltages.
  • Class C protects from impact but not electricity. 

Feet and legs. Leggings, toe guards, foot and shin guards, and safety shoes protect your lower body from compression, impact, and more. For working with electricity, there are also special shoes to prevent electrical hazards.

Hands and arms. Most gloves protect you from minor cuts and contact with chemicals, but some materials are suitable for specific hazards.

  • Gloves made from leather or canvas protect from cuts and heat.
  • Fabric gloves protect against dirt and minor cuts.
  • Butyl, latex, and other synthetic rubber gloves protect from chemical and biological hazards.

Full body. Like gloves, garments made of certain materials protect from specific hazards. Most clothing protects from cuts and radiation, but materials include:

  • Paper fiber (like a hospital gown) protects you from dirt.
  • Treated cotton protects you from temperatures, abrasions, and dirt. 
  • Leather (like a leather apron) protects against fire and heat.
  • Rubber protects against chemicals and penetration. 

Hearing. Hearing loss in the workplace is common due to loud equipment. Earplugs and earmuffs protect your ears from hearing damage.

Each type of PPE will have instructions for use, but all PPE has some commonalities. Using PPE correctly can make the difference in hazard exposure. 

PPE should not be damaged. Worn-out PPE can expose you to the hazards they’re trying to protect you from.

PPE should fit you and fit together. Loose or tight PPE can cause other problems, like a tripping hazard or discomfort. 

Use clean PPE. Most PPE can only be used once, but if it’s reusable (like goggles), clean it regularly to remove any hazardous chemicals, dust, or biological material.

Never share PPE. Reusable and shared PPE can’t guarantee protection, so you should always use new equipment. If it’s reusable, don’t use someone else’s because it may not fit you, be damaged, or be dirty.

Use up-to-date protection. As recently as 2022, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) updated expectations for PPE quality. If you’re using old equipment, it may not meet the updated standards and could be hazardous.

PPE in the workplace is in the hands of the employer. The first step before handing out PPE is to do a hazard assessment and create a safety program.

There will be a survey of your workplace for the eight basic hazards, which will help guide the creation of the safety program. 

Along with providing PPE for employees, you need to educate your employees on the following:

  • When they need to use PPE
  • What type of PPE to use
  • How to use, adjust, and store the equipment
  • The equipment’s limitations
  • PPE care, maintenance, and disposal

OSHA has consultation services at no cost to employers to establish safe workplaces.

PPE is vital in almost every workplace to protect you from occupational hazards. If you’re concerned about your work safety, talk to your employer about PPE.

Perhaps you’re concerned about your at-home safety during renovation projects or regular maintenance work. In that case, you can invest in high-quality PPE to protect you.