PPE Standards Warning

Supervisor in a factoryA variety of sources including the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) have reported numerous times that the UK is awash with poor quality, unsafe personal protective equipment (PPE). But how serious is the problem and how can employers be sure that the products they are purchasing are fit for purpose?

What should we look out for?

CE marking and compliance with relevant British and International standards are a good place to start, although CE marking alone must not be considered enough as it does not relate to a relevant design standard. Employers should seek out PPE from reputable suppliers such as Seton who have in-depth knowledge of their products. They should also state that the product is CE marked and quote the relevant standard in their catalogues, websites, on packaging and on the item itself.

Most types of PPE are available in various grades, depending upon their level of performance. Employers are not obliged to buy the highest grade if risk assessment shows that a lower grade has all the characteristics required to provide effective protection of employees. Nevertheless, the first consideration in selecting PPE should always be Health and Safety performance, not price.

Much of the defective PPE identified in the UK has been hard hats and high-visibility clothing so employers looking to source these items should look for compliance with BS EN 397:2012+A1:2012 and BS EN ISO 20471:2013 standards respectively.

In 2015 Poundworld was fined £63,000 for selling “non-compliant non-performing” high-visibility vests that were misleadingly described. The court heard that a Trading Standards officer had purchased a vest that was tested for visibility in low-light conditions, the results of which were stated to be “amongst the worst results ever recorded” by the testing company. Initially blaming a ‘bad batch’, Poundworld eventually initiated a national recall of the product.

BSIF have also flagged up that compression tests on safety footwear showed that thermoplastic caps appear to be regularly substituted for non-metallic glass fibre. They stated, “Safety footwear is commonly a bought-in product, with a long supply chain and often the importer is unaware that the footwear being sourced now has a toe cap component which will not provide the user with the protection level that they expect … The current evidence from safety footwear toe cap failures reinforces our view positive action is required now.”

They had also seen failings of leather gloves due to presence of banned substances in the fabric of the gloves such as Chromium VI and Azo dye, which could harm the user.

Updated BSIF scheme

Speaking about the prevalence of poor quality PPE, a source at BSIF has stated, “Never before has there been more widespread evidence of product failing to meet claimed performance standards … The users of safety equipment and PPE deserve to get the standard of product they expect, supplied through a capable network. Many products that have been found not to perform are placed on the market at the end of a long import supply chain that is clearly difficult to manage.”

BSIF recently re-launched its Registered Safety Supplier Scheme (RSSS) in response to what it sees as this widespread failure of PPE products to comply with basic safety standards. The relaunch saw a strengthening in the terms of membership for PPE manufacturers and suppliers supplying to the UK.

Any company registered on the scheme and displaying the logo must sign a declaration that the PPE they supply complies with relevant standards, legislation and is CE marked. The suppliers are independently audited to ensure they meet these compliance standards.

The RSSS scheme is another way that employers can be confident that the product they are buying is fit for purpose.

New EU PPE Regulation

In April 2016 the new European Personal Protective Equipment Regulation 2016/425 came into force with full implementation in April 2018. The new Regulation extends the scope of the European PPE Directive (89/686/EC), with the addition of PPE for protection against moisture, water and heat (e.g. dish-washing and oven gloves) when used for private instead of commercial purposes, which were covered by the original Directive.

The arrival of the Regulations has been seen by suppliers and H&S industry bodies to be a step forward in countering the growing problem of counterfeit and inferior quality PPE in the UK.

While the BREXIT vote has raised some questions about the future of EU-based law in the UK, we are likely to see most, if not all, EU legislation retained in one form or another. The same will be true of the Personal Protective Equipment Regulation.

BSIF has stated that it will be seeking early guidance on key issues from the UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) department and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). It believes that the PPE market will continue to recognise the Regulation post-BREXIT.

BSIF also intended to work “diligently” with lawmakers to be “on the inside of any discussions”.

Employer Duties

Employers must ensure that the PPE is readily available for use as and when it is required and in general, each item should be personally issued to the employee.

Employers have a duty, not only to provide information and instruction, but also to train their employees in the use of PPE as well as the reasons why it is necessary, the results of not wearing it and any cleaning or maintenance procedures required.

The employer is not allowed to make any charge or levy in respect of any PPE provided if there is a specific requirement to provide it. This includes any PPE which is provided as a result of an assessment of risk rather than just for the company’s image or the comfort or convenience of the employees.

As the employer has to provide PPE which is suitable and takes into account the requirements not only of the task but also the individual, there is a need to consult with the persons who have to wear the PPE.

If more than one item of PPE is worn simultaneously, then such equipment must be compatible, e.g. many types of ear muffs prevent a safety helmet being worn properly but combined helmets and ear muffs are available.

It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the PPE is worn when required as well as ensuring that the PPE is maintained in an efficient working order, in good repair and is kept clean.

The PPE should be replaced, as and when necessary. Adequate facilities should be provided by the employer to clean, maintain and store the PPE. This may include lockers and drying facilities.


Although PPE should always be considered the ‘last resort’ in the hierarchy of H&S controls, many employers rely on it to keep their employees safe. As such it is vitally important to ensure that the PPE provided is good quality and will serve its purpose – failure to do so might see the business in trouble with the authorities or subject to civil claims. Always source PPE from reputable suppliers such as Seton.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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