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What is PPE and how is it used?

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With a pandemic circling the globe, new words and phrases are becoming part of common vernacular. Coronavirus. N95. Shelter-in-place. Face coverings. Social distancing. PPE.

What exactly is PPE?

The FDA classifies personal protective equipment as specialized clothing, face shields, masks, and other items that protect a person from injury or infectious illness. While hazards addressed by protective equipment include physical, chemicals, biohazards, and others; airborne particulate matter is of utmost concern today.

PPE is used routinely in health care settings including hospitals, clinical labs and doctor’s offices.  When used properly in tandem with other infection control practices such as thorough hand washing, hand sanitizers, and covering coughs, PPE takes it a step further by minimizing the spread of infection. To use PPE effectively, however, you must properly remove and dispose of contaminated equipment.

Basic types of personal protective equipment

Sixteenth-century European plague doctors can’t be wrong. Early iterations of PPE included heavy boots, gloves, and body armor to protect against harmful injury and doctors battling the plague also donned body-length gowns, eye protection made from glass, and special helmets to ward off contagions. Interestingly, the gowns’ thick, heavy cloth was also covered in wax to add an element of water resistance. A mask filled with the smells of flowers and herbs was also sometimes worn.

While modern advances in PPE have certainly come a long way since the days of the plague, the foundation remains the same. Common types of PPE include:

  • Face and eye protection
  • Respiratory infection
  • Skin and body protection
  • Hearing protection

Keep in mind that different work environments and scenarios may require the use of different types of PPE equipment. Doctors caring for patients in isolation, for example, must wear protective equipment or clothing, and their particular facility must provide clearly understandable and written instructions on use and availability of this equipment. It is also very important to safely remove PPE, avoiding the risk of further contamination or spread of illness, and dispose permanently in specially designated waste locations, especially when the equipment is exposed to dangerous contagions. For PPE that can be effectively cleaned for reuse, be sure to place it in laundry or cleaning areas separate from other items.

How to choose PPE

When it comes to using PPE, always select gear that meets current regulations specific to your industry. It is also important to choose products that suit the physical characteristics of the user—it won’t do to supply equipment three sizes too large, effectively eliminating its intended protective use.

Also critical to remember is using PPE designed to be worn as a unit, such as safety shields and respirators. Ill-fitting or unsealed equipment increases contamination risk. In all cases, be sure pertinent staff is fully trained on how to use PPE, the importance of it, and how to remove and dispose when use is complete.

In the midst of the current coronavirus crisis, many companies have turned an innovative eye to adapting their existing processes and equipment to manufacturing much-needed PPE for medical workers, while governments worldwide rush to ramp up a reliable supply to hospitals and clinics.

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