Toggle high contrast
Issue date
About this resource

This is an excerpt from the TUC book "Hazards at Work: Organising for safe and healthy workplaces", the best-selling guide to health and safety at work.

Buy a copy of the book (if you are a safety representative on a TUC training course, please speak to your tutor about getting a discounted copy).

Basic facts about personal protective equipment

Hazards affecting workers

At the time of writing, the use of PPE is headline news as the country battles the respiratory virus Covid-19. The government has struggled to provide enough equipment for NHS and other frontline workers, and supplies of varying quality are being hastily manufactured here and abroad.

The information below is based on its use in more normal circumstances.

Even where engineering controls and safe systems of work have been applied, it is possible that residual hazards may remain a threat. These may lead to injuries to the:

  • lungs, for example, from breathing in contaminated air
  • head and feet, for example, from falling materials
  • eyes, for example, from flying particles or splashes of corrosive liquids
  • ears and hearing from noise
  • skin, for example, from contact with corrosive materials or biological substances, or chemical substances that can be absorbed through the skin
  • or hands, feet or head from extremes of heat or cold.

Sometimes, PPE is needed in these cases to reduce the residual risk.

In the 2018 TUC safety reps’ survey, many of these hazards were identified by safety reps in their top five workplace hazards, broadly similar to 2016. For example:

  • 14 per cent mentioned high temperature, similar to 16 per cent in 2016.

  • 11 per cent mentioned noise, same as 2016; five per cent mentioned chemicals or solvents.

  • 10 per cent mentioned dusts; 14 per cent mentioned low temperatures and 7 per cent mentioned infections.

PPE should be a last resort

Unfortunately, some employers encourage employees to use PPE without ever considering the introduction of prevention and control measures that could eliminate the use of PPE. This leads to a number of problems:

  • PPE protects only the person wearing it, whereas measures controlling the risk at source can protect everyone at the workplace.
  • Theoretical maximum levels of protection are seldom achieved with PPE in practice, and the actual level of protection is difficult to assess.
  • Protection is often ineffective because the PPE is not suitable, incorrectly fitted, not properly maintained, and may be used improperly.
  • PPE is often designed for men, and for women workers this may introduce serious hazards and discomfort.
  • PPE may fail due to poor or uncomfortable fitting. It is often made to standard sizes that don’t take into account the fact that, for example, many workers wear spectacles and many men have beards and stubble.
  • PPE may restrict the wearer by limiting mobility or vision, or by requiring additional weight to be carried, causing musculoskeletal problems. as well as the health and safety problems that this may cause, it can also lead to PPE not being worn because of the discomfort that it can cause, and workers are then blamed for their own exposures.
  • PPE itself may also present chemical hazards to the wearer, such as inducing latex and other allergies or the absorption of harmful substances in plastic and waterproofed clothing.

Legal and other standards for prevention and control

A range of legislation includes PPE and there is coverage in several other chapters of this book. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 put obligations on employers to make suitable and sufficient assessments of risks to their employees and non-employees. The risks should be reduced using the principles of prevention outlined in Regulation 4 and Schedule 1, which make it clear that collective measures should be implemented in preference to individual measures.

Other regulations include:

  • The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012; the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002; Chapter 28 - the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999; the Noise at Work Regulations 2005. These regulations take precedence over the PPE at Work Regulations.
  • For example, a person working with asbestos would, where necessary, have to use respiratory protective equipment and protective clothing under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.
  • Very importantly, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 Section 9 states the worker doesn't have to pay for any PPE which is used only at work: "No employer shall levy or permit to be levied on any employee of his any charge in respect of anything done or provided in pursuance of any specific requirement of the relevant statutory provisions."

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (as amended)

Definition of PPE (Regulation 2)

Personal protective equipment means all equipment (including clothing affording protection against the weather) which is intended to be worn or held by a person at work and which protects them against one or more risks to their health and safety, and any addition or accessory designed to meet that objective.

PPE includes:

  • protective clothing such as aprons, protective clothing for adverse weather conditions, gloves, safety footwear, safety helmets, high visibility waistcoats, etc.
  • protective equipment such as eye-protectors, life-jackets, respirators, underwater breathing apparatus, safety harnesses

In practice, however, these regulations will not apply to ear protectors, most respiratory protective equipment and some other types of PPE used at work. These types of PPE are specifically excluded from the PPE at Work Regulations because they are covered by existing Regulations such as the Noise at Work Regulations. However, even if the PPE at Work Regulations do not apply, the Regulations and Guidance may still be applicable, as the general principles of selecting and maintaining suitable PPE and training people in its use are common in all Regulations which refer to PPE

Provision of Personal Protective Equipment (Regulation 4)

When health and safety risks cannot be adequately controlled by other means, employers must provide employees with suitable PPE. Self-employed persons have a similar duty to themselves. Suitable PPE means:

  • it is appropriate for the risks involved, the conditions at the place where exposure to the risk may occur and the period for which it is worn
  • taking account of ergonomic requirements, the state of health of the persons who use the PPE and the characteristics of the workstation
  • it is capable of fitting the wearer correctly, if necessary, after adjustments within the range for which it is designed
  • so far as practicable, it is effective to prevent or adequately control the risks without increasing the overall risk

Employers should ensure that PPE is provided for personal use to ensure hygiene and health.

Compatibility of PPE (Regulation 5)

Where there is more than one risk, employers must ensure that different items of PPE that have to be worn together by employees are both compatible and effective.

Assessment of PPE (Regulation 6)

Before choosing any PPE, the employer must make an assessment to determine whether the PPE they intend to provide is suitable. The assessment required should include:

  • an assessment of any risks to health and safety which have not been avoided by other means
  • defining and comparing the characteristics that the PPE must have in order to be effective against the risks, which will also include any risks that the PPE itself may create
  • an assessment as to whether the PPE is compatible with other PPE required to be worn simultaneously

The assessment must be reviewed if:

  • there is reason to suspect it is no longer valid, or
  • there has been a significant change

Maintenance and replacement of PPE (Regulation 7)

Every employer must ensure that any PPE provided is:

  • maintained
  • cleaned or replaced as appropriate
  • in an efficient state
  • in efficient working order
  • in good repair

Accommodation for PPE (Regulation 8)

Appropriate accommodation must be provided for PPE when it is not in use.

Information, instruction and training (Regulation 9)

Employers must provide employees with information, instruction and training that is adequate, appropriate and that they understand. This will ensure that employees know:

  • the risks which the PPE will avoid or limit
  • what the PPE is for
  • how to use the PPE provided
  • any action needed by the wearer to ensure the PPE remains in an efficient state, efficient working order and in good repair

Information must be kept available, and at suitable intervals demonstrations in the wearing of PPE should be organised.

Use of PPE by employees (Regulation 10)

Employers must take all reasonable steps to ensure that employees properly use the equipment provided.

Employees must:

  • use the PPE in accordance with the training and instructions provided
  • take all reasonable steps to ensure that the PPE is returned to the accommodation provided for it after use

Reporting loss or defect (Regulation 11)

Employees must report to their employers any loss of or obvious defect in the PPE provided for them.

The self-employed

The self-employed also have a duty to obtain and use the appropriate PPE wherever there is a risk to their health and safety that cannot be adequately controlled by alternative measures.

What can safety representatives do?

Safety reps should check that their employer is observing their responsibilities under the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.

Safety reps can involve workers in identifying if there is a problem by:

  • carrying out a survey with workers that may be affected
  • using hazard and risk mapping with members
  • doing a special inspection that concentrates on PPE, using the inspection checklist
  • doing a special inspection that concentrates on the information provided and the health and safety training of workers who have to use PPE.

Safety reps should report their concerns and those of their members to management in writing. Use Chapter 6 of Hazards at Work for ideas on how you can make sure that management gets things done.

Risk assessments

Safety reps should ask for copies of the risk assessments that the employer has done to ensure that they are preventing and controlling hazards without resorting to PPE as a first option. Reps should check that they are being consulted on the purchase of PPE to ensure the employer makes an assessment to determine that the PPE is appropriate for the hazard and for the workers using it.

Safety policies

Safety reps can also monitor the employer's safety policy regarding PPE, and check that:

  • there are competent personnel that prevent or control hazards without resorting automatically to PPE
  • there is consultation "in good time" about arrangements for the appointment of competent people
  • where there is any potential risk, that their employer has given all their workforce appropriate training and information
  • PPE is suitable to be worn by women workers and all workers with special characteristics such as facial hair, spectacles or disabilities
  • the introduction of PPE does not create new hazards, such as latex gloves (often used in the health service) causing latex allergy, or risk of causing a musculoskeletal disorder, or absorption of harmful chemicals.


Download the Personal and Protective Equipment Checklist (pdf)

Further information

(in alphabetical order)

Hazards magazine website

Excellent news and resources on the Hazards web resource page.

HSE webpages on PPE


Essential information for safety representatives. Keep up to date on health and safety by registering to receive Risks, the TUC's weekly e-bulletin for safety representatives.

Trade union information

Many unions provide guidance on PPE. The website addresses of all trade unions are in Britain's unions. Contact your union, or visit your union's website to find out what guidance is available.

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now