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3M - The Question Of Compatibility In PPE Specification And Use

Jo Partridge, Technical Services Manager, Occupational Health & Environmental Safety Division, 3M United Kingdom plc

Across a wide range of industries and applications, workers are exposed to a number of hazards simultaneously. The need for protection from all these hazards often means that more than one item of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may need to be worn* at any one time.

In the construction industry, for example, workers may often be required to wear head, eye, hearing and respiratory protection simultaneously. Similarly, a welder may need to wear a respirator to protect them from welding fume and hearing protection to protect them from nearby processes in addition to their welding shield.

These instances, and indeed wherever hazardous substances or processes require workers to wear a combination of PPE products, are where issues of compatibility can occur.

For most types of PPE, the quality of fit is paramount to ensure that optimum protection is offered, but an individual who tries to fit incompatible PPE may not be able to get every item to fit adequately. Consequently, items which are incompatible may result in a reduced level of protection, from one or more items, or even no protection at all. For example, protective eyewear could be interfering with a respirator’s face seal pushing it away from the nose and cheekbones, or likewise a pair of safety spectacles may sit too highly on a wearer’s face when worn with Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE).

Unfortunately, the issue can be compounded by the fact that if a wearer is experiencing discomfort as a result of incompatible PPE products, they may be tempted to move one of the items to an incorrect position, or even remove it altogether.

The law
Compatibility is recognised by the law, with both the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations stating that any item of PPE must be compatible with other PPE worn.

The Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) linked to Regulation 7 of COSHH states that “PPE should control exposure adequately to the hazardous substances to which the wearer is exposed, or is liable to be exposed, throughout the time it is used. When selecting PPE it is important to take into account:...whether the design is adequate and suitable, i.e. the equipment fits the wearer, does not dislodge, deform, melt or otherwise fail to perform in the conditions in which it is used and is compatible with other PPE worn.”

However, there is no general or overarching guidance as to which PPE combinations are compatible with each other, due mainly to the differences in the requirements of individuals. Face shapes and sizes can vary considerably, meaning that a combination of PPE that is compatible for one person may not be so for another.

Achieving compatibility
Individual PPE items will be CE marked and approved to the relevant standards but this does not necessarily mean that they will fit well together on a wearer - current standards do not assess the interaction between individual products. This means that proposed PPE combinations may need to be individually assessed on the wearer to ensure compatibility and a range of styles and models of products may be necessary to achieve a suitable fit for everyone in an organisation.

Ideally, wearers should be involved from the start in the PPE selection process. Time should be taken to find the right combination for each individual, ideally allowing them to choose the most comfortable products from a range of items. As a general rule, if PPE products are comfortable when fitted correctly, they are more likely to be worn and issues with compatibility are less likely.

Another option is to use combination products which bring together several PPE types in a single unit – for example a powered air respirator with a headtop which incorporates hearing, eye, head and respiratory protection. This type of system reduces the number of items competing for space on a wearer’s face.

Wearers should also be trained in the types of hazards they may encounter, their health effects and the importance of obtaining a good fit with all the PPE items they are required to wear.

Further advice, if needed, is available from product manufacturers or their authorised distributors.

For further information and to access 3M’s technical bulletin on compatibility visit

* PPE must only be considered as an option when other measures in the ‘hierarchy of control’ are unable to reduce the hazard to acceptable levels.

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