Compiled by Benjamin Brits

Personal protective equipment (PPE), in many cases, is mandatory for general site work and the more specialised the field of work – the more advanced the requirements for safety to be adhered to.

The HVACR industry has several high-risk elements, where the use of PPE, and the correct use at that, may save serious injury or fatality.

I’m quite sure (too) many people have been involved in situations where they look back and think to themselves “I really should have been wearing protective gear” or have been involved in close calls, or where the use of any sort of protective gear would have made an incident less serious. It is unfortunate that for most, PPE is really considered a burden, a grudge purchase or afterthought.

Incidents happen so quickly. From slipping and taking a fall, a simple drilling accident, a narrow escape from a flung piece of metal during a cutting task and even a misplaced tool or debris falling from overhead – are all real situations whether working in a workshop or out on site – the latter likely being of greater consequence if an incident occurs.

The subject and importance of PPE is by no means a new one and has been a topic of discussion for decades but is still as relevant today as a continual reminder that safety and a culture of preservation should always be a priority for all individuals and businesses.

According to AJ Charnaud, “There is a huge variety of PPE available. The best PPE for a workplace will depend on the workplace hazards and the perceived level of risk. Ideally, a risk assessment for each category of employee should be undertaken to ensure that the correct PPE can be provided. For instance, employees handling goods should wear gloves to protect their hands from injuries. Companies should identify potential hazards and then research the different PPE types available to determine which items are suitable for the specific workplace setting.”

The provision of PPE and the associated costs can add up quickly and according to various industry members is something that must be monitored and controlled. A register of what and when PPE is issued to staff must be kept, and training on the correct manner of using PPE is also required. Record keeping is essential, particularly when an incident occurs and requires an incident report to be compiled.

Ensuring safety under all conditions

For any HVAC or refrigeration technician in the industry, safety plays an important role because of the variety of risks that exist. These could be due to working with pressurised systems, various types of refrigerants as well as possibly in extremely hot or extremely cold areas, a plant, building or facility.

Routine work tasks could also include things such as electrical hazards, chemical exposure, working at height, and a variety of weather conditions that need to be considered and catered to.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, “To make sure the right type of PPE is chosen that will provide adequate protection against the identified hazards – that will be different for each job undertaken, and may also include specialist needs such as flame- and chemical-retardant materials – it is always recommended that the consultation and advice from professionals is obtained particularly with specialist work where for example chemical reactions may occur with the incorrectly specified gear.”

The following elements can also be considered when assessing suitability:

  • Does the PPE protect the wearer from the risks and take account of the environmental conditions where the task is taking place? For example, eye protection designed to protect against chemical spray may not offer adequate protection when using an angle grinder to cut steel or stone.
  • Does using PPE increase the overall level of risk or add new risks, for example by making communication more difficult?
  • Can the PPE be adjusted to fit the wearer correctly?
  • What are the needs of the job and the demands it places on the wearer? For example, the length of time the PPE needs to be worn, the physical effort required to do the job or the requirements for visibility and communication.
  • If someone wears more than one item of PPE, are they compatible? For example, does using a respirator make it difficult to fit eye protection properly?

Further consideration can be applied to make sure that the protective items allow the user to complete their work tasks without causing difficulties in required movement. When choosing PPE, the correct fit and allowed range of motion is essential. Remember that PPE is not one-size-fits-all. You must take the users body shape into account and choose PPE that fits each employee correctly.

“The weight of PPE is another important factor to consider. Heavy PPE will put your employees at risk of fatigue, which will affect their overall productivity and performance in the workplace. For that reason, lightweight PPE is often the preferred option, although you must ensure that the materials are strong enough to withstand damage and be ‘fit-for-purpose, adds AJ Charnaud.

Smart PPE is part of the larger movement for the connected workforce and the Industrial Internet of Things to improve workplace safety, and to achieve operational excellence with fewer incidents.

Another common challenge with PPE is the comfort element. If the PPE is uncomfortable to wear, then it is likely to incline employees to either not use it at all as required, or create distraction resulting in possible injury. Airflow is also important in many cases to avoid heat stress. This is particularly important during hot or humid months or where employees are exposed to the high heat environments as mentioned.

Industry also notes that a challenge in terms of PPE is that various sites may require very different PPE and this too can become costly as protocol for contractors may be the requirement of green overalls at one site but blue at another, some sites require flame retardant or chemical suits. The need to cater to all site requirements grows considerably but further requires staff to continually be cognisant of various PPE requirements to gain access to sites.


PPE quality involves well-designed products as well as quality materials. Overall quality and quality features, have shown positive results to encourage users to wear their protective gear and follow required workplace health and safety policies. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood of accidents and injuries occurring in the workplace.

Talking to various industry members, depending on the particular PPE item and application, the need for quality will vary. Items that are worn for long periods of time such as safety boots are very important in terms of quality, so comfort and durability is worth paying for. Safety glasses are not that important in terms of quality as they often need regular replacing due to scratching. Overalls are another common element that industry says should be a quality item purchase, as low quality products are prone to very short service life.

Making PPE better for the end-user

Often times, situations arise whereby even though PPE is a critical requirement, practically speaking the forced use can result in putting the user at more risk. An example of this as feedback received from technicians is the use of goggles or eye protection in certain tasks. What is known to happen is that especially in very cold conditions such as maintenance or repairs at freezer stores, goggles tend to mist up and obscure vision creating a potentially dangerous setting, especially if intricate work is required to be completed.

Many suppliers recognise the challenges of site work and therefore spend significant time on research and development of solutions around elements such as this. For instance, with misting, a new spray-on treatment has been developed to minimise and eliminate eyewear fogging.

Similarly, sizing and comfort are also key elements of development for suppliers as more demands arise in terms of ensuring safety while intricate work tasks are required. For this element protective gear, such as gloves, have been developed to the point where ranges exist for so many applications from chemical work to rubberised coatings to avoid electrical shock.

PPE technology

It may not be something that gets much thought otherwise, but the list of technology advancements in PPE is quite extensive. From new and hybrid materials to special fabric treatments and various sensor technology, to new chemical and flame-resistant solutions, continual research is going into the advancement of PPE and the safety of workers overall.

Smart PPE is part of the larger movement for the connected workforce and the Industrial Internet of Things to improve workplace safety, and to achieve operational excellence with fewer incidents.

Smart PPE refers to wearable equipment that connects to the Internet or other devices, such as Bluetooth, to deliver real-time safety information to workers in the field as well as managers remotely. This technology can track movements, monitor body temperature and vitals, issue alerts and record audio and/or video. This type of equipment is often paired with a smartphone app or a cloud-based platform that can be used for various analytics.

There are thousands of different data points smart PPE can capture and track, which can be used to address any number of safety concerns, everything from fever to heat exhaustion to fatigue to improper lifting motions. This data can then be used to develop training specific programmes to further uplift skills.

As smart PPE is gaining traction, widespread reception to, and adoption of, such smart devices has been linked to the growing use of consumer electronics such as fitness trackers and smartwatches that have made the general public more comfortable with wearing tech and thus for work is not a major change in habit.


Catering to a growing female workforce

According to Sisi Work Safety, “Over the years, women have been making up a greater proportion of the workforce, and this includes sectors that have typically been male-dominated such as mining, manufacturing and construction. This increase in women workers in more physical industries shines a spotlight on the need for female-specific safety gear. The typical approach of providing ‘unisex’ PPE does not adequately serve most women, who are often left feeling uncomfortable in ill-fitting attire. The reason for this is that “unisex” equipment, offered by many brands, is predominantly a male mould modified with cosmetic touches to be passed off as a female offering. Some safety gear such as footwear that does not fit, may negatively impact the wearer’s productivity in the short-term and lead to injuries in the long-term.”

As diversity and inclusivity continue to be important to business, more women will be employed in the HVACR industry – one particularly known to be dominated by men. However, while hiring practices may have evolved, many organisations have not changed their strategy toward the required safety gear. The most common approach is to obtain one generic, supposedly ‘unisex’ range in a variety of sizes, which does not really cut it these days.

However, specifically with reference to footwear, this is not the most appropriate solution, since there is only a small portion of the female population that will suit a unisex shoe which is basically a men’s in a smaller size. Women’s feet are not only typically smaller than men’s, they are also a different shape, and tend to be narrower.

In addition to causing discomfort on a daily basis, studies show that ill-fitting shoes cause foot pain and foot disorders. According to research, footwear cannot fulfil its intended purpose if it does not fit the foot correctly. This means that ill-fitting safety footwear may not effectively be fulfilling their role of keeping the wearer safe.

When women are made to wear poorly fitted shoes, their feet often oscillate from side to side. Over time, the oscillation puts strain on the ankles, which leads to strain on the knees and subsequently strain on the hips. This can in turn cause back pain other related issues.

In the case of women with narrow heels, the potential of slipping out of the boot is a daily risk, counteracting the sole purpose of the said safety gear. Most women require safety footwear designed specifically for the shape of their feet to ensure they are both comfortable and secure.

Female-specific PPE, is not just about cosmetic changes or putting a ‘feminine touch’ on men’s equipment. Women’s safety equipment needs to allow women to focus on their work rather than on how uncomfortable they are or continually be adjusting the gear they are using, creating a risk rather than solving a problem.

Companies like Sisi Safety Wear, have conducted numerous interviews and worked with specialists in the industry to develop a range of safety footwear specifically designed for women, and that are manufactured locally. Their range consists of a number of styles and sole units that take into account the functional and ergonomic requirements of the female workforce across different industries.

Women deserve both safety and comfort in the workplace, and with locally manufactured, women-specific safety wear ranges readily available, there is little excuse for organisations not catering to the needs of their female workforce today.

Why training is so important when selecting and using PPE

By Andrew Perks

When we talk about PPE we think of equipment hanging on a wall that may be needed sometime not always the procedure we are undertaking, the risks involved and the requirement to have the correct PPE on hand to quickly and decisively attend to any unforeseen circumstances.

Selecting the correct PPE will depend on the Risk Assessment undertaken prior to the commencement of any work in a potentially hazardous procedure. Now I have been in this industry forever and I need to tell you about a situation that I got involved in that got totally out of control. Over confidence is always a bad start to any procedure.

I was on my way home one Friday evening when I got a call to pop into a client who was having problem with an intermediate liquid injection system causing high discharge temperatures on an Ammonia 2-stage reciprocating compressor.

So, with very little tools and no PPE I swing by the plant. First mistake.

I diagnosed that the issue was the liquid feed solenoid, shut the compressor down, then pumped it down and vented it till all the gauges were zeroed. Then I started to open up the solenoid forgetting that whilst the up-stream high pressure liquid valve was closed I had not checked to see that it was holding. Second mistake.

Being in a hurry, instead of cracking a flange I opened the solenoid top to find I had high pressure liquid. Third mistake.

The only response to this was to beat a retreat to find some water as I had inhaled some ammonia. So, I get out of there like a dog, low to the ground, grab some water and straight back in to switch off the plant and ignition sources in the area. At this point the years of training started kicking in but I am on my own and I have no PPE. I race around the site to try to find a gas mask but there isn’t one (should have been two outside of the plant room).

Anyway, things need to be done so with a wet rag on my face I start closing valves to minimise the release. Whilst I was doing this the Fire Brigade arrived that really made my day. One of the firemen wanted to go in but I knew what valve was not holding and with a wrench I wanted to get to it. So, they kitted me out in a level B chemical suit and a BA Set and in I went. At the door I heard this whistle start at which point the guy tried to pull me back, but by this time I was on a mission.

I got to the passing valve and got a full two turns on it – it was now tightly closed and the Ammonia stopped leaking. It was only years later that I found out about the 5-minute whistle on a BA Set that sounds to tell you that you have 5 minutes of air left and it is time to get the heck out of there.

At this stage, I am sure the adrenalin has subsided, and I need to get the plant back up and running. Just when I was getting ready to go and get a bucket load of milk the engineer arrived and kept me there for a further two hours as he compiled his report to submit to the DOL about the incident, I was shattered.

It didn’t end there. Six weeks later, my car blew a cylinder head gasket, you may ask what this had to do with the Ammonia leak. Me too until I realised that all of the copper fins on the radiator had corroded away due to the Ammonia from the leak as my car was outside the plant room when all this was going on. So yes, lots of lessons to be learned. You won’t catch me doing that again. It’s these kinds of incidents that we try to highlight for the up-and-coming engineers during training. Reminds me of the phrase ‘measure twice, cut once’. It’s all about risk assessments.


Health and Safety Executive 

AJ Charnaud 

Andrew Perks 

EHS Today 

Sisi Work Safety

Industry feedback