On Balance  

PPE: A faint hope clause

Everywhere we look these days, personal protective equipment (PPE) is a predominant preoccupation equation. It’s quite the turn-around for everyone who’s been involved in occupational health and safety efforts over the years. Finally, some serious traction.

Also, we’re carefully and tentatively starting up the rider training season at the Kelowna Safety Council, with some changes around protective riding gear. The obvious problems with trying to sterilize “loaner” gear mean that new riders are going to have to bring their own, rather than borrowing riding jackets, helmets, and gloves.

So this week it seemed timely to have a chat about PPE in general, and motorcyclists’ gear in particular. Theme music today is Jimmy Ruffin’s big hit from ’66: “What becomes of the brokenhearted.” It’ll make sense later.

For quite awhile during the early going with the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists kept asking the provincial and federal medical health officers why they weren’t mandating the wearing of masks. The assumption seemed to be that face masks were the obvious answer to protecting people from a respiratory virus, so if everybody had to wear them, we’d be home free.

The response was a tricky piece of work for scientifically-minded officials trying to address broad public policy issues about safety, and I felt their pain. The challenge was to find some workable balance between complacency and mass panic, while trying to maintain some scientific integrity. This is how it goes about PPE. You want people to use it reliably, but knowing its limitations, you don’t want them to rely on it. Hmmmm.

You can get a feel for this dilemma by putting on your mask and going for a stroll through the local greengrocers. First thing you notice is what a ruddy nuisance the thing is, how your glasses keep fogging up and it keeps falling down unless you have it so tight it rips your ears off. Oh yeah, and now you have to keep repeating yourself like the whole world suddenly went deaf. Great joy.

Second thing you notice is the great cultural divide along aisle 10: some are wearing masks, some aren’t. Wait a minute. Didn’t Dr. Tam say to wear this damn thing in stores? What gives? Where’s the mask cop? 

Ahem. Where was I? The third thing you notice about masks is that the “user practices” vary enormously. Some are over the nose, some below. Some are taken on and off, depending on the need to be heard or the need to read the microscopic price labels. The rest are falling off or otherwise just driving ol’Jim at the frozen meals section to the breaking point.

This is the nightmare of PPE. It works, but it only works if people can manage to get the right stuff (recent flawed shipments from China come to mind) and if they can manage to put up with wearing it effectively. 

This brings to mind the firefighter problem. Firefighters are granted Workers’ Compensation for various types of cancer by right of their occupation, because the science has proven that their PPE has not protected them adequately from certain toxic exposures known to give you cancer. The problem with PPE, then, is that it only kinda sorta works, at some times, in some cases.

Nurses around the world are acutely aware of this about their masks and gowns and gloves. Six hundred of them have died so far of COVID-19 because their levels of exposure just overwhelmed best PPE practice.

What we have to remember, whether we’re riding or we’re out shopping, is that there are other measures we can take that are more effective than relying on masks and gloves and helmets. Safe practices, safe environments, safe equipment all need to be first in mind. In occupational health and safety, in public health, and in rider safety, these are the levels of response to hazards that generate best outcomes.

Does rider gear work? Yes, to some extent it does afford a reduction in injuries and fatalities, but the limitations are huge. Studies do confirm injury reduction if the gear is worn properly, and if it’s manufactured to meet relevant standards. When you’re buying, to make sure those gloves are actually protective, look for the “CE” designation on the label. This is the body of standards for protective equipment established by the European Union. 

But that protection only extends to “survivable incidents.”

When you’re down to relying on your gear, you are indeed one of the brokenhearted. Your relationship with riding is well and truly blown, because you didn’t successfully use the other, more effective measures above. Maybe you skipped safe practices, like keeping good enough physical distancing (two seconds minimum), or observing safe cornering protocols (look through the corner, slow before entering, steady throttle).  

Maybe it was an unsafe environment, as in dangerous road surfaces on a curve, or blocked sightlines at an intersection. FEMA has some great research materials on that element; look up femamotorcycling.eu.

Or maybe your equipment was faulty, poor tires for instance.

Now what becomes of you depends on one last, marginal thing: your PPE. Uh-oh.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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