Personal Protective Equipment - PPE

When and how should this be used?

There are times when it will be necessary to use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect workers from being affected by certain hazards.

However, to most effectively remove or reduce the incidence of occupational injury or illness, the risks associated with exposure to workplace hazards must be controlled at the source.

The following lists - in order of preference - the control strategies which should be considered for each hazard. This is the 'preferred order of control' or the 'hierarchy of control'. In some instances a range of control methods may be needed.

  • Elimination
  • Substitution or Modification
  • Engineering Controls
  • Administrative Procedures
  • Personal Protective Equipment

PPE (such as face masks, respirators, gloves, boots, overalls, goggles and ear-muffs) should be regarded only as a short term measure until more effective control strategies are implemented, or in very limited situations (such as emergency clean-up). Often, PPE has a number of limitations as an effective control method:

  • In many instances, available PPE does not meet standards, or is not adequately maintained, and thus does not provide real protection;
  • Use of PPE puts the onus on the worker to protect themselves - PPE is often seen as the only method of controlling hazards, rather than focusing on making the place of work safe;
  • Use of PPE makes the job more difficult to perform;
  • Use of PPE may impede warnings of danger;
  • Use of PPE may cause other health problems (e.g. ear infections); there are sometimes issues with hygiene if PPE is shared
  • PPE is generally not individually fitted, and thus frequently fails to provide full protection;
  • PPE may be uncomfortable, causing workers to remove PPE, thus exposing them to risk;
  • Full and adequate training in the need for, and use of PPE does not generally accompany its issue.

PPE should only be used:

  • when no other control method is possible;
  • while other controls are being installed or implemented;
  • for emergencies and during maintenance activities;
  • for situations where other control methods don't provide enough protection.

PPE should not be used:

  • just for the sake of it;
  • throughout an entire workplace/department unless it has been identified as genuinely necessary.

How to select PPE
Once the need for PPE has been established, the next task is to select the proper type. Use the following guidelines to help ensure the best PPE is selected. Remember the employer must do all the following in consultation with the HSR:

  • Match the PPE to the hazard. There are no shortcuts to PPE selection. Conduct a complete hazard assessment and choose the right PPE to match the hazards.
  • Get expert advice and shop around. Discuss your needs with an occupational health and safety specialist and trained sales representatives. Ask for alternatives, and check into product claims and test data. Any proposed PPE must be approved and consistent with Australian standards
  • Involve the workers who need to use the PPE in evaluations. Various models should be trialed by workers at the workplace so they have the opportunity to evaluate them.
  • Consider the physical comfort of PPE (ergonomics). If a PPE device is unnecessarily heavy or poorly fitted it is unlikely that it will be worn. Use every opportunity to provide flexibility in the choice of PPE as long as it meets required legislation and standards.
  • Evaluate cost considerations. The cost of PPE is often a concern and disposable options are not always cheaper in the long term.

Who should supply and pay for PPE?

The employer must provide and pay for any personal protective equipment necessary to ensure that employees are able to carry out their work in a manner that is safe and without risks to health. 

The OHS Act places a duty of care on employers to identify hazards and risks, and then eliminate them so far as is reasonably practicable. In many cases, it is not possible to eliminate the risks at source - by eliminating a hazardous chemical for example, because it is necessary for the work involved. In such cases, the employer has the duty to implement controls to minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

The controls should be according to the 'hierarchy of control' - that is, as close to the hazard as possible. So, for example, substituting the chemical for another one that is less hazardous. If a risk remains, then measures such as engineering controls come next - like exhaust ventilation. The last control is the provision of personal protective equipment - this is because even when necessary, there are problems with PPE. 

The duty to implement controls is the employer's. If workers have to wear/use PPE then it is the duty of their employer to ensure that the most appropriate PPE is provided to them - and paid for by the company. Also important is that workers are trained in the need for and correct use of any PPE.

In some other jurisdictions, this duty is specifically found in regulations - and clearly communicated by the WHS regulators. However, this is not the case in Victoria. 

The advice from Safe Work Australia is as follows:

"The person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU)* gives PPE to workers, unless their labour hire company or agency already gave it to them. Workers must use their PPE as instructed by their PCBU."

* Under the Victorian OHS Act, the term 'employer' is used, not 'PCBU'.

NOTE: there are a number of relevant Australian Standards which should be complied with. These include:

For Reflective clothing:

  • AS/NZ 4602: 2011 High visibility safety garments - Garments for high risk applications
  • AS/NZ 1906.4: 2010 Retroreflective materials and devices for road traffic control purposes - High visibility materials for safety garments. (plus Amendment 1; 2014)
  • AS/NZS 4602.2:2013 High visibility safety garments - Garments for fire service personnel

For Protective clothing:

  • AS/NZS 4501.1:2008 Occupational protective clothing - Guidelines on the selection, use, care and maintenance of protective clothing
  • AS/NZS 4501.2:2006 Occupational protective clothing - General requirements
  • AS/NZS ISO 2801:2008 Clothing for protection against heat and flame - General recommendations for selection, care and use of protective clothing
  • AS/NZS ISO 13994:2006 Clothing for protection against chemicals - Determination of the resistance of protective clothing materials to penetration by liquids under pressure
  • AS/NZS ISO 22608:2007 Protective clothing - Protection against liquid chemicals - Measurement of repellency, retention, and penetration of liquid pesticide formulations through protective clothing materials
  • AS/NZS 4399:1996 Sun protective clothing - Evaluation and classification
  • AS/NZS 4453 (various) Protective clothing for users of hand-held chainsaws
  • AS/NZS 4543.3:2000 Protective devices against diagnostic medical X-radiation - Protective clothing and protective devices for gonads

There are also standards for firefighting protective clothing, respiratory protective equipment (masks), occupational protective gloves and more.

More information:

  • From the UK's TUC: Guidance for Representatives - Personal Protective Equipment and Women [pdf]. The guidance provides reps with advice on ensuring that PPE for women is a safe fit. It has information on: The (UK) law on personal protective equipment; Problems with PPE for women; Examples - Case study; and Taking action.
  • From CCOHS (Canada) - PPE for women in construction: The right fit.
  • From Safe Work Australia
  • From SafeWork SA: advice on RPE  
  • From SafeWork NSW: The Basics: Your Rights at Work. Under the NSW Regs, the employer (PCBU) must provide workers with PPE
  • Information from WorkCover Queensland: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • From the UK's Health and Safety Executive:
    • A brief guide to the Personal Protective Equipment at Work [pdfThis guide is on the UK regulations, but has useful information.
    • Report: Evidence base for identifying potential failures in the specification, use and maintenance of PPE at work [pdf 1.21MB] -  a 58 page report into the risks associated with PPE-related accidents. In the UK around 9,000 of these are reported each year with an annual cost of 252 million pounds. The most common categories of PPE cited in accident reports were hand/arm and foot protection, followed by eye and face protection.

Last amended March 2022