How good are you?

A recent in-depth investigation of a small sample of companies showed only around half were effective in protecting the wearer through their use of RPE as a control. We looked at the reasons for this and found there were four different groups. However, only one could be confident that their workers will be protected. You will fall into one of these four groups of RPE users:

  • Proficient - companies with a fit-for-purpose RPE programme, managers with an acceptable level of RPE competence
  • Developers - companies with systems in place, and generally aware of what they need to do, but still some way to go with implementation of their RPE programme
  • Learners - companies without fully effective RPE practices, managers in the process of establishing a formal RPE programme
  • Fortuitous - companies with workers protected from respiratory hazards despite a significant RPE knowledge and skills gap at managerial level and the absence of a structured RPE programme

If you recognise yourself or your company as a developer, learner or fortuitous, there is a danger your RPE is not protecting your workers. To be confident that you are protecting workers, you need be amongst those we term proficient, having both sufficient knowledge and achieving the proper control. There are a number of signs that will indicate where you are:


They have a good understanding and RPE used will be protecting the worker. Some reasons why we say this are:

  • Evidence of health and safety knowledge and expertise
  • Senior management commitment and a motivation to improve and recognition that their own actions influence their workers
  • Some provision of training with induction and fit testing as a minimum
  • Supervision and enforcement of RPE use in place
  • Close industry networks and a 'social dialogue agreement' with other companies
  • Proactive in searching for improvements using various external sources
  • General health and safety and housekeeping is a priority
  • Recognise the importance of having clear RPE procedures in place
  • Involve workers to accommodate preferences balanced against the RPE protection
  • Heavy focus on COSHH and risk assessments
  • Close monitoring of health/respiratory issues
  • Frequent verbal communications with workforce on RPE


They have some understanding but RPE still may not be protecting the workers. Some reasons why we say this are:

  • Some evidence they have developed health and safety expertise
  • Keen to improve further, but want to be told what to do
  • Respond to others' (external) suggestions
  • Take an 'educate workers' approach to enforcement rather than disciplinary approach
  • Want a simple life (eg no/little maintenance, simple stock control)
  • Recognise that they still have some way to go on a journey to good RPE performance
  • Cost is an issue during times of low productivity
  • Heavily influenced by workers' wants and needs
  • Assume that workers know what to do, without adequate supervision/checks
  • Aware of having no formal maintenance programme in place


They lack understanding and RPE may not be protecting the worker. Some reasons why we say this are:

  • Overconfident their workers know the risks and how to protect themselves, and rely on this
  • Tendency to adopt an authoritarian style of management with little worker involvement or behaviour change attempts
  • Opted for quick and cheap controls and assume that these are working until told otherwise
  • Unaware of the legal requirement to fit test and other necessary stages of the RPE process (eg proper storage, maintenance)


They have little understanding - RPE is likely to be protecting the workers but more by luck. Some reasons why we say this are:

  • Significant gaps in RPE knowledge/awareness
  • Management in need of RPE training
  • Assume that workers know how to protect themselves and rely on their RPE knowledge acquired in previous/other jobs
  • Rely too much on external information sources and their RPE suppliers
  • Little communication and training on RPE

What will help employers implement RPE programmes?

One of the key issues found, especially among learners, was an over-reliance on employee 'common sense' to use RPE correctly. The study also found that the majority of participating companies needed some improvement in two areas:

  • Management and worker knowledge - especially on awareness and understanding of respiratory risks and on general RPE issues, such as the need for fit testing
  • Knowledge of ongoing monitoring, storage and maintenance requirements - substandard maintenance was a recurring theme

It is clear from the investigation that a number of factors affect RPE programme development such as legislation, external audits by HSE, insurers and industry groups. There are positive steps that employers can take. For instance:

  • Involve workers by gathering feedback (particularly on comfort), and look into the availability of options, historical practices within the company and managerial experience
  • Provide training not only for the workforce but also for managers
  • Seek advice from sister companies or external contacts such as consultants, or members of the supply chain

For full details of the findings, please read the report.

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Updated: 2021-04-26