The four levels of personal protective equipment
Personal protective equipment is the last level of protection in the fight against safety hazards. A robust incident prevention program with tangible, consistent action is the most effective way to protect workers from dangerous equipment, hazardous chemicals, system failures, and more.
Still, every operation needs to supply adequate PPE to its workers. Having the right gear is crucial in the event of an emergency, and it’s a requirement under the OSHA standards for PPE. As always, consult with these standards to determine the best way to protect your team.
What are the different levels of protection?
There are different levels of PPE (A to D) which are ranked in order of severity from highest to lowest. You can find an in-depth description of each level in OSHA standard 1910.120 Appendix B, “General Description and Discussion of the Levels of Protection and Protective Gear.”
Here is a brief overview of each level and what it requires:
Level A: At this level, there is a high risk of skin, respiratory, and eye injury without PPE. Some examples of level A equipment include chemical-resistant, steel toe boots and full body chemical suits.
You should use level A PPE when you’ve identified a specific hazardous substance or an unknown, potentially hazardous substance. And you should also use it when your processes create a higher risk of injury. For example, if you’re a chemical manufacturer, your employees might get splashed with dangerous substances. So, they need clothing that shields their skin from contact with those materials.
Level B: At this level, there is still a high risk of respiratory injury but less severe threat of skin exposure. So, good gear to have in this instance is NIOSH-approved respirators and chemical-resistant clothing.
If your workers are in a poorly ventilated space where they’re likely to breathe in harmful substances but won’t come into direct skin contact with them, you should use level B PPE.
Level C: At this level, the threat of unknown airborne substances and/or chemicals is moderate. You can still consider some of the category A and B PPE, but it doesn’t have to be as comprehensive due to the increased variable control.
When the work area allows for proper ventilation and eliminates direct skin contact with identified substances, level C PPE is appropriate.
Level D: At this level, there are no known or suspected hazards, so most forms of PPE are optional. You may still choose to use protective gear for certain processes, but the need is minimal.
Compliance with these guidelines means consistent monitoring of the conditions within your worksite. As you change the variables in your operation, the conditions to satisfy each level of PPE may change too. In that case, you may have to modify your site’s PPE requirements.
When should you modify your PPE requirements?
Using level C or D equipment depends on being able to know and control the risks you identify. That means that if you detect a new respiratory hazard, you should upgrade to more comprehensive PPE.
It may also be necessary to upgrade to a higher PPE level when you change your work processes. If a change to one task puts workers at risk of skin contact with harmful materials, they’ll need the proper clothing to protect against those substances.
These principles go in the opposite direction too. While monitoring your worksite, you may realize that a hazardous substance is less dangerous than you initially thought. Or maybe you implement a process improvement that lowers the amount of contact workers have with a skin hazard. In both cases, you can consider downgrading from level A or B gear.
Remember: personal protective equipment is the level of protection you use last. It should not be the first step in your incident prevention process. When making complicated changes to processes, equipment, and people, follow the MOC process. And during this process, if you create or uncover a new health hazard, reevaluate your PPE requirements and adjust them quickly to avoid costly incidents down the line.