three construction workers on a site

Not all personal protective equipment was created equal and different industries need more protection from Covid risk than others. Here’s your guide to getting the right level of protection to keep your workplace safe.

Compared to the rest of the world, Australia has fared pretty well when it comes to COVID-19.

Victoria experienced the worst of it, reaching over 700 new cases on its worst day. Still, the state has now brought those figures down through stringent social distancing laws and the rest of Australia seems to have COVID under control. Particularly in comparison with places like the US, where there are well over 30,000 new cases each day; and the UK with over 10,000 new cases each day.

Over the past few months, we’ve learned a lot about this illness, but most importantly, we understand that it’s a respiratory disease that is spread through infected bodily fluids.

COVID-19 is transmitted by close contact and the risk of infection is greater with those close to the infected person – family members, friends, housemates, patients. The most effective methods of protection include frequent washing of hands with soap and water; using alcohol-based hand rub regularly; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; coughing or sneezing into your elbow or a tissue; and social distancing.

For health care workers, office workers, retailers and other industries where you may be in close contact with those at risk, you may also be required to protect yourself and others through the use of PPE, such as medical masks.

The use of PPE for COVID has come with confusion, however, about what works and what doesn’t; and what type of PPE is required for each industry. Basic PPE includes masks, gloves and screens, but some industries are taking further steps as well. Ultimately, the type of PPE you require is dependent on your workplace and your risk assessment.

Masks: Consumers and the general public are donning face masks either out of necessity (in Melbourne), or as a preventative. For people like construction workers, wearing face masks is nothing new and they have long been used as protection against dust and other dangerous particles and chemicals in the building process – they just have an added bonus now as well. Although in most states the Australian Government doesn’t generally recommend face masks are worn by healthy people, they are certainly useful as a preventative in areas where there has been community transmission, or where physical distancing is difficult.

There are three mask types: surgical masks, respirators and face shields. Surgical masks are disposable and have three layers and are the most common masks available to be worn by medical professionals and the general public alike. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t actually protect against airborne droplets, but if everyone wears one and also maintains social distancing, it can reduce the risk. Respirators are common among construction sites and prevent the wearer from inhaling dust and smoke – along with droplets. They have four layers, and if fitted properly, they offer the best protection against the virus. Finally, face shields are made from Plexiglas screens or plastic, and provide complete protection. They’re easy to clean and reuse, but they still need to be used with a mask to protect against COVID.

Gloves: Although disposable or multi-use gloves are ideal for some professional settings, such as medical professionals, trades and food handling, the most effective method of preventing COVID-19 is in fact washing your hands with soap and water, and using a hand sanitiser that has at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol. If used incorrectly, gloves can actually spread germs, so they need to be replaced regularly, washed properly if they are multi-use, and they can’t be shared between workers.

Screens: Some offices have installed Perspex screens to protect workers who work side to side or back to back, and we’re also seeing these regularly popping up in our local supermarkets, doctor’s offices, chemists, and even some retail stores to protect the staff working behind the counter. It’s not necessary, according to the Australian Government, but if a business has a high risk assessment, it’s certainly a consideration.

Other PPE: In a healthcare setting, PPE also includes gowns and disposable suits, however these are considered to be extreme measures and are not generally required or recommended to those outside the healthcare industry. For police, security workers and other industries where you might get up close to droplets, eye protection may also be used, including safety glasses, goggles or a face shield – which help to act as a physical barrier from droplets, and also prevents the rubbing of eyes.

PPE has long been an essential resource when it comes to safety in the workplace, and it’s never been more prevalent than it is today. Whatever industry you work or live in, if you are at risk, PPE is an essential barrier for protecting against COVID-19.

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