The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established by Congress in 1970 to ensure safe working conditions for employees across the United States. As part of this mission, OSHA has enacted several personal protective equipment (PPE) laws and regulations that affect employers and small business owners. OSHA PPE laws generally require that employers purchase and supply any necessary (PPE) that is required to keep employees safe.
Read on for a general overview of OSHA standards and the latest guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as it relates to PPE regulations that may apply to your small business.
What is personal protective equipment (PPE)?
According to OSHA, personal protective equipment is "equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses." This equipment can include items that protect against immediate and severe injuries, such as gloves to protect against cuts from sharp objects, or items that protect against long-term damage, such as earplugs to prevent hearing loss.
Before 2019, PPE was most commonly used in construction, healthcare, manufacturing, and maritime industries. With the onset of COVID-19, companies across a variety of industries are taking a closer look at protecting their employees and customers from hazards in the workplace. A common way to facilitate a comprehensive protection program is through the proper use and training of personal protective equipment.
Who is responsible for buying PPE & providing PPE training? (employer or employee?)
In general, OSHA requires all employers to provide the proper PPE to keep employees safe during the normal course of their job duties. This may mean that employees need different types of PPE for carrying out different job tasks, or that different employees within the company need different types of protective equipment. If a job requires PPE, proper training and sometimes certification is required.
In providing this equipment, employers are not allowed to pass the cost on to their employees or otherwise require employees to provide their own PPE. While there are a few exceptions to this payment rule, generally OSHA requires that employers pay for most PPE, including eye and head protection, protective footwear, hearing protection, or other specialized safety gear in industries that require it.
What types of PPE should be used?
OSHA groups personal protective equipment into eight categories: eye and face protection; respiratory protection; head protection; foot protection; electrical protective equipment; hand protection; personal fall protection systems; and other general PPE. Within each category, OSHA outlines specific levels of equipment that must be provided based on the severity of the hazard. For example, employees working with welding equipment or high-intensity lasers must be provided with more robust eye protection than a carpenter.
Before purchasing safety equipment, small business owners should make sure that the equipment they plan to purchase meets the standards set by OSHA. Within each PPE category, OSHA provides guidelines for different industries or job descriptions that commonly use that type of equipment. These guidelines specify how much protection should be provided by the PPE device for that industry and job description. Hard hats, for instance, are divided into three industrial classes:
- Class A provides protection against impacts and mild electrical shocks up to 2,200 volts.
- Class B provides the greatest protection against electrical shocks up to 20,000 volts.
- Class C provides protection against mild impacts but offers no electrical protection.
To ensure your employees are properly protected, make sure you purchase equipment that provides the correct level of protection for the type of hazards your employees will face on a day-to-day basis.
When is PPE necessary?
OSHA standards outline many different job functions and industries where personal protective equipment is required by employers. When employees perform job functions that could be hazardous to their health, either immediately or in the long term, employers must provide proper safety equipment to safeguard against those known hazards.
Employers must provide PPE for employees in a variety of situations, including (but not limited to):
- Hardhats and earplugs for construction workers
- Respirators and facial coverings for healthcare professionals with potential exposure to COVID-19
- Safety goggles for employees who work with lasers or other eye hazards
- Protective leg guards for molten metalworkers
- Non-slip shoes for working in wet or slippery environments
- Protective gloves for handling corrosive chemicals in a laboratory
- Earmuffs for airport grounds crew
- Flotation devices for workers at a pool or on a boat
When is PPE not required?
In some cases, employers may elect to provide protective equipment to their employees even if it is not required by OSHA. These employers may also elect not to implement the use of PPE at all. According to OSHA, PPE is generally not required when:
- Employees work for the company in a fully remote, work-from-home position
- The PPE protects against a safety hazard that is not commonly associated with the job, such as providing foot guards against heavy objects for accountants who work in a traditional office setting
- The PPE is used for cleanliness instead of safety purposes, such as with kitchen aprons
What PPE laws, regulations, and requirements should I know as a business owner?
The broad safety principle that applies to all employers is from Section 5 of the OSH Act of 1970, also known as the “General Duty Clause.” It states that all employers have a duty to provide a place of employment that is free from hazards that are likely to cause serious injury or death. In short, business owners are legally bound to provide a safe working environment for their employees. In some industries, employers can’t completely eliminate hazards, but there are still ways to keep employees safe by providing PPE.
To stay in compliance with OSHA regulations, your first responsibility as a business owner is to conduct a thorough hazard assessment of your workplace. During this process, you will identify the most common hazards that can put your employees at risk, then work to categorize them and initiate a plan for avoiding or preventing those hazards.
Once you have identified your common workplace hazards, you must initiate a plan to comply with all the OSHA PPE regulations that are applicable to your business. Some OSHA standards only apply to businesses in specific industries, while others only apply to businesses over a certain size. There are many PPE laws and regulations, so it's important to make sure you comply with all OSHA standards that are specific to your business. Fortunately, OSHA offers a free consultation program for small business owners to educate them through the process.
In addition to complying with OSHA standards and proactively preventing workplace accidents, you may have other responsibilities as a business owner. If your employees must wear certain types of PPE, such as respirator masks, you are responsible for providing adequate training to your employees on how to use the PPE properly and safely. If you have 10 or more employees, you are also responsible for keeping detailed records of any workplace accidents or injuries.
OSHA's industry standards for PPE
There are a number of OSHA PPE standards for various industries or types of equipment to use in the normal course of operations for a business. These standards outline the requirements that employers must follow to protect their employees, and all standards are organized into general industry, construction, and maritime regulations.
OSHA personal protection standards include:
- A general description of the protective equipment (such as "ear protection")
- A list of industries or job positions in which that type of PPE would be necessary
- Specific OSHA quality standards (i.e. "Must be proof tested to a minimum tensile load of 3,600 pounds")
- If necessary, definitions for any jargon or industry-specific terms that may not be commonly known across all industries
OSHA's PPE requirements during COVID-19
Concern for virus transmission in the workplace has increased exponentially since the identification of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes COVID-19). OSHA PPE standards, however, haven't changed in the wake of this virus. In protecting employees against the virus, employers should still start with a detailed hazard assessment, then provide and distribute protective equipment to employees based on level of risk exposure and type of work performed.
OSHA has developed additional guidance for employers on how to classify COVID-19 risks and risk levels, as well as how to prevent virus transmission in the workplace. While facial coverings, such as cloth masks, are not classified as PPE for OSHA standards, many employers are choosing to provide them for employees as a proactive measure to keep employees safe and healthy while at work. OSHA guidance also encourages more frequent hand washing, sanitizing of common areas or shared devices, and increased general cleaning. Employers should comply with these initiatives and stock additional cleaning and PPE supplies as needed.
What to do if you experience a PPE shortage during COVID-19
The best strategy for avoiding shortages of PPE is to plan ahead. As a best practice, order additional PPE well before your inventory runs low to account for potential back orders or shipment delays. If you run out of a specific item, consider an alternative that can accomplish a somewhat similar level of protection. For example, if your business runs out of hand soap, you may provide employees with a sanitizing scrub or hand sanitizer instead as a temporary measure until you can replenish your stock of soap.
Proper use and training of PPE is more than just an OSHA requirement — it's a proactive way to keep your employees safe and healthy amidst a pandemic. For additional help in getting started with your workplace PPE program or other business issues related to COVID-19, check out our Coronavirus Help Center that includes resources and support for your business.