Employee health professionals questioning whether their supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) are up to date with current performance standards may want to consult new guidelines issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

“Workers are more likely to appropriately use PPE when they are confident that the equipment will provide the intended protections based on its conformance with appropriate standards,” NIOSH states.1 “A comprehensive and tailor-made conformity assessment (CA) program is the most effective way to manage risks of a nonconforming PPE and instill this confidence in PPE users.”

We asked the lead author of the document, Maryann D’Alessandro, PhD, director of the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) at NIOSH, to explain the basics.

HEH: What is PPE conformity assessment, and how is NIOSH involved in this new framework?

D’Alessandro: Conformity assessment is the process of determining if a particular PPE product conforms to an established performance standard. It is an important process within the PPE community because it ensures that products will provide the expected level of protection. Conformity assessment processes increase users’ confidence that their PPE will meet manufacturers’ claims and protect them from workplace hazards. The PPE community has a variety of conformity assessment processes in place so that manufacturers and consumers can be confident that a product meets specific requirements. For some industries, conformity assessment might also occur after a product has already demonstrated that it meets the requirements. These post-market conformity assessment activities are done to ensure that performance requirements continue to be met during production, distribution, or under use conditions.

Essentially, this new framework provides recommendations and guidance for developing, structuring, and managing PPE conformity assessment in the United States. It can be appropriately tailored and universally applied to all PPE that protects from a variety of risks regardless of the hazard, PPE type, or environment. The framework describes the foundational principles of conformity assessment that allow processes to be developed that are reflective of the worker’s risk and aids practitioners in selecting and purchasing PPE in areas with little oversight.

HEH: Why is this needed at this time?

D’Alessandro: The conformity assessment process for non-respirator PPE in the U.S. is quite variable and engages many different government and non-government entities. Because of this variability, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2011 recommending that NIOSH expand its involvement in conformity assessment processes for non-respirator PPE.

As a first step toward expanding our role, we developed the PPE framework document. In the document, we outline a risk-based framework that may be used to assess the adequacy of existing conformity assessment processes.

The framework development began with the establishment of a nationwide working group of stakeholders shortly after the publication of the National Academies Report in 2011. The framework has been a need since and prior to that publication. It took this long to work with all of the stakeholders, get the framework peer-reviewed, address the comments, and publish the report.

HEH: What role can employee health professionals in hospitals play to make sure this document is understood and implemented?

D’Alessandro: Understanding the building blocks in the framework will assist both users and purchasers. It is important for every worker to fully understand the standards the equipment should meet and the protections the equipment should provide. If the employees understand how their equipment should protect them, they can assure they are using the equipment properly and can provide feedback to manufacturers and standards developers on the adequacy of their equipment to provide input to future standards and equipment designs. In addition, purchasers should understand fully what the label means before purchasing equipment to ensure users are protected from the exposures on the job.

REFERENCE

1. D’Alessandro M. NIOSH. National framework for personal protective equipment conformity assessment – infrastructure. 2017. Publication 2018–102. Available at: http://bit.ly/2By2xJD. Accessed Nov. 30, 2017.