It’s colourful and great to look at but it may not be PPE and may not be as effective as you think!

Is PPE effective | covid19 | Finch Consulting

In this article specialist Health and Safety Solicitor Julia Thomas and Senior Consultant and ex HSE Principal Inspector Melvin Sandell explore the issue of PPE and why face coverings are not PPE but can be of some use. 

What is PPE?

The saturation media cover of the pandemic has brought ‘PPE’ to the debate but confused the issue about what it is and isn’t. There are a lot of things which are now referred to as PPE when in fact they do not fall into the scope of the definition, and often do not provide the level of protection that many people would expect.

Suitable Personal Protective Equipment or PPE, is tested and approved equipment that has been designed and manufactured to meet certain standards, and which can be used to eliminate or reduce the health or safety risks to a person whilst at work. It includes a wealth of items such as safety footwear, goggles and other eye protection, safety helmets and respiratory protective equipment also known as RPE. It does not include face coverings (see below) for which there is no standard.

The law

There are specific regulations which deal with the obligations on employers and employees and workers when assessing when and what PPE is required and the supply and use of the same. The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 deals with the provision, use and maintenance of PPE whilst the EU Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2016 ((EU 2016/425), covers the supply of the same. The enforcement of the latter is done through the Personal Protective Equipment (Enforcement) Regulations 2018 by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) who is the enforcing authority for the supply of PPE designed for use at work.

Although different hazards in different work activities (noise, asbestos, radiation, hazardous substances etc) will require their own, sometimes very different assessments for deciding on whether, when and which PPE is appropriate, it must be remembered that compliance with one piece of legislation doesn’t allow you to fail to comply with another; the Regulations around PPE must be complied with as well as other regulations relating to the use of certain items of PPE in specific circumstances.

When should PPE be used?

PPE should only be used where more effective, collective control measures cannot be used.  Its regarded as the last resort in nearly all the hierarchy of control structures in good guidance.  Yes, it is that measure that is the bottom rung of the control ladder and should only be implemented after consideration of the four other elements (elimination; substitution; engineering controls and administrative controls). This is not to say PPE should never be used. Its use in some circumstances may be the only option or it could complement other measures in place to more effectively control the risks to workers for example in the healthcare sector.

Some of the reasons why PPE is to be considered as a last resort are:

  • PPE does what it says on the tin; it protects the worker wearing it rather than the worker and those around them.
  • It can interfere with a worker’s ability to carry out a task.
  • Its effectiveness for the wearer depends on a few factors including whether it fits the wearer properly, if the wearer is using it correctly and if the PPE is being properly maintained.

PPE obligations – selection, use and maintenance

PPE should only be considered for use when it is indicated by a risk assessment and that assessment should say what risk needs to be controlled and how so you know what you need to provide. PPE comes in many different shapes and fittings so as well as being appropriate for the risk identified, consider the needs and working conditions of the wearer.  For example, women are generally smaller than men and spectacle wearers may not be able to use some forms of RPE. Any changes or substitutions should not be considered without referring back to the risk assessment. Providing the right PPE to your workers is necessary to ensure compliance with the law.

If after conducting your risk assessment it shows that PPE is required, you should note the following:

  • The use of PPE can come with its own hazards. For example, it may restrict the wearer’s ability to hear sounds or to communicate with others. If communication is key to the wearer’s role then a PPE item which allows that communication still to take place is required.
  • It could increase the risk to the wearer for example it may interfere with the wearer’s ability to use a piece of machinery safely or it may  place more physical demands on the wearer. You are not allowed to create or worsen existing risks without bringing in other measures to get them back under control.
  • PPE should not interfere with the wearer’s general ability to keep safe in the workplace. For example, if the PPE restricts the wearer’s vision and/ or hearing so that they could not see an emergency light or hear a fire alarm alternative measures will need to be considered.
  • PPE must be provided to your employees free of charge and the duty to provide it and ensure it is used, is yours.
  • The selection of PPE must be done carefully. Do not adopt a one size fits all approach or you risk the PPE not doing what is it supposed to do i.e. protecting the wearer. Certain types of PPE by virtue of its name must be individually fitted to ensure it provides the protection it is there for.
  • Consider whether health surveillance is also required to assess the suitability and efficacy of the PPE chosen for each worker.
  • PPE should be CE marked.
  • Instruction and training on the correct and safe use of the PPE must be given.
  • Consideration should be given to whether an item of PPE should only be used by one person for hygiene reasons, especially in today’s climate.
  • If a combination of PPE is to be used, you should check that the use of one does not interfere with the use of other items. All items should be well matched and work effectively together to guard the wearer against the risks identified and for which protection is required.
  • Appropriate facilities for the storage of the PPE when not in use must be provided.

Employees also have legal obligations to ensure the correct use of PPE.  Employees must:

  • Ensure they wear and use PPE in accordance with the instruction and training received.
  • Take reasonable care of the PPE provided.
  • Report and loss of damage to PPE immediately to their managers.
  • Not attempt to undertake any maintenance or repairs to PPE unless they have been trained and authorised to do so.
  • Carry out a visual examination of any PPE before use to check for any issues.
  • Ensure that PPE is returned to its designated storage location after use.


There are clear differences between a face covering, surgical face masks and respirators although in the current climate they all have been referred to as PPE:

  • A face covering is something which covers the wearer’s nose and mouth. It usually made from cloth and they are widely available for purchase if you do not fancy making one yourself. They provide limited protection for the wearer but are better at preventing the wearer spreading virus. I have ordered one which is colourful and pretty, but it is definitely not PPE.
  • Face masks are a mixed bag. Some may be PPE and some not. Some will have only a limited effect against dusts and then only if worn properly, whereas some can be rated against chemicals and airborne particles. Normally they cover only the mouth and nose and are loose fitting. Those with a performance rating assigned to them for example a FFP2 facemask will only be effective and meet that standard of they are properly fitted. Do not assume a rated mask will necessarily provide the protection needed in all cases; check what the rating means. These latter are generally regarded as PPE as they are there to protect the wearer from incoming hazards.
  • Respirators are tight fitting masks that can cover the nose and mouth or the whole face. They are normally designed to create a facial seal and whilst they will stop the wearer spreading virus, they are primarily designed to protect the wearer.

The similarity between face coverings and non-PPE face masks is that both are designed for one-way protection, that is to capture bodily fluid leaving the wearer, so they are not to protect the wearer but others around them. PPE rated face masks and respirators provide two-way protection by filtering both the inflow and outflow of air therefore they protect the wearer as well as others.

In the workplace

The principles for assessing the use of PPE and managing COVID related risks are no different to those which existed in health and safety legislation prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 transmissions is just another risk which needs to be managed in the workplace.  PPE should be used as a last resort for managing the risk from COVID-19 to workers (except for in specific roles and sectors such as the healthcare sector).  Measures such as social distancing, limiting the amount of people in the workplace, good ventilation etc. should still be your first ports of call.

Whether PPE is required to reduce the risk of COVID transmission in the workplace will depend on a number of factors including the type of work which is being undertaken, the work environment, the number of people and the type of work you are doing. A prime example of those who need PPE in addition to other measures because of a specific risk created by the need to be close to known virus carriers is workers in the healthcare sector but generally PPE should not be required for this risk alone.

There have been examples of counterfeit and substandard PPE being sold. If buying PPE, employers should ensure they buy CE marked PPE from reputable suppliers to reduce the chance of ending up being sold poorly manufactured copies that may put employees at risk. HSE issued a safety alert in June 2020 warning of the same.

In general settings

The effectiveness of wearing face coverings to combat the spread of COVID-19 has been hugely debated during the pandemic. The debate has evolved and the Government’s step to make the wearing of face coverings mandatory whilst on public transport in England and from 24 July in shops and other retail outlets, indicates an acceptance that the wearing of a face covering does have some effect which is some way from the indication given at the start of the pandemic. At the time of writing government guidance on wearing face coverings states “The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others.[1] This is because face coverings reduce the size of any droplets and the distance that they travel.

Face coverings are not legally required in the workplace but if a worker feels more comfortable wearing one employers should support their worker’s decision. If you allow or require  people to wear face coverings in the workplace you should provide them with advice on how to do this safely. They should

  • Change the face coverings if they become damp, they have been touched by others and/or daily.
  • Wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water before putting on the face covering and before and after its removal; and
  • Launder the face coverings in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.

Other guidance related to limiting the spread of COVID-19 does not go into abeyance because someone is wearing a face covering. On the contrary the use of face coverings is an additional measure to all the other advice which has been given during the pandemic by the Government which can be found here, and by those of us at Finch which you can find here.

So the message is:

  • Only consider the use of PPE as a last resort.
  • Make sure any PPE is CE marked.
  • Make sure you choose the right PPE which does not increase the overall risk to the wearer and is suitable for the task and work environment.
  • PPE is personal so make sure it is suitable for each wearer and it fits; and
  • Don’t classify everything as PPE!

If you require any further help and guidance on PPE, please contact the authors of this article.

For further Covid 19 related health and safety advice, please visit our journal for more information.