The outbreak of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has brought Personal Protective Equipment, commonly abbreviated to PPE, into the daily news and the public consciousness. Everyone will be aware of the serious concerns being expressed currently about the critical shortage of PPE for doctors, nurses and other staff in the provision of care to the desperately sick Covid-19 patients.
We have been faced with the sad news of a disproportionately high number of healthcare professionals having died as a result of the Coronavirus. This has highlighted concerns that the inadequate supply of vital Personal Protective Equipment, such as masks, gowns and gloves, has contributed to the high number of deaths.
Perhaps understandably, not as much attention has been paid to other key workers, who have continued to perform vital roles throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and also exposed themselves to the risk of infection.
What is PPE?
PPE is equipment that will protect the user against health or safety risks at work. This might include safety helmets and hard hats, gloves, eye protection, protective facial masks, high-visibility clothing, safety footwear and safety harnesses.
It has been long-established in law that those who suffer an injury at work because of defective or absent PPE may be entitled to bring a claim for compensation on the grounds that their employer has failed to take sufficient precautions, as required in law, to protect them from the risk of injury.
The Law on PPE
The legal requirement for employers to provide their employees with adequate Personal Protective Equipment has been supported in law long before Coronavirus highlighted the issue.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposed a specific requirement on employers to provide PPE and more recently, The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 set out clear requirements, including:
Regulation 4 - Every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to their employees who m ay be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective.
The regulations, however, are not just limited to the provision of PPE. Employers are also required to ensure that PPE is readily available to workers (which is a current concern arising from the Coronavirus), to ensure that training is provided on the use of the PPE; the PPE is properly maintained and that it is properly assessed to ensure that it is fit for purpose.
The Health and Safety Executive identifies the following issues to be considered when assessing the suitability of PPE:
- Does the PPE protect the wearer from the risks and take account of the environmental conditions where the task is taking place? For example, does the mask provide the doctor with protection, as far as reasonably possible, from the risk of infection by the Coronavirus?
- Does using PPE increase the overall level of risk or add new risks, eg by making communication more difficult?
- Can it be adjusted to fit the wearer correctly?
- What are the needs of the job and the demands it places on the wearer?
- If someone wears more than one item of PPE, are they compatible?
It is important to add that the PPE Regulations state that all equipment should be provided free of charge by the employer as they have a legal duty to keep their employees safe at work.
Risk of injury caused by lack of PPE
The failure of an employer to provide adequate PPE can result in a range of injuries. Construction workers are particularly vulnerable. Lacerations and amputations are more likely when suitable gloves and footwear are not provided. Workers are more vulnerable to severe head injury in the absence of a safety helmet. Severe orthopaedic injuries can occur if an employee falls when working at height and is not provided with a safety harness. Many workers in recent decades have suffered industrial diseases, including asbestos-related diseases, industrial deafness and occupational asthma as a result of insufficient PPE.
PPE and Covid-19
It is recognised that Coronavirus is commonly transmitted through personal contact, sneezing or coughing, with the virus ingested through the mouth, nose or eyes. Key workers in the private and public sector are being exposed to the Coronavirus and consequently are at an increased risk of being infected.
Employers, including the NHS and care home owners, have taken steps to protect their staff from this heightened risk by providing masks, hand wash, goggles and long clinical gowns, but criticisms have still been expressed, both about the failure to supply PPE to some staff and the adequacy of the equipment. Recent concerns have been raised specifically about the failure to provide PPE to care homes staff, who are responsible for looking after some of the most vulnerable in society.
With the level of infection and death tolls rising daily, it is a frightening prospect for key workers and there is increased anxiety to all NHS workers, whether nurses, doctors, porters, cleaners, canteen staff or therapists. In turn, this has a detrimental effect on those workers ability to provide care and support for the wider public. There have been recent reports that nurses are refusing to treat severely ill Coronavirus patients due to the lack of Personal Protective Equipment.
It is far too early to assess the long-term consequences of the Coronavirus. There is not a clear understanding yet of how many patients who have recovered from the virus but will experience lasting damage to their lungs caused by pneumonia or respiratory distress. It is also conceivable that many patients and healthcare workers will suffer psychological symptoms arising from the consequences of Covid-19.
Outside of healthcare workers, there are other key workers, such as supermarket workers, postal workers and delivery drivers, who are exposed to increased risk of Coronavirus infection by virtue of them continuing to perform their vital work. These employees are still entitled to appropriate PPE protection in accordance with the risks that they face.
Compensation Claims Arising from PPE Issues
Where an employer has failed to meet their obligations under the law relating to PPE and a worker suffers an associated injury, they may be entitled to bring a claim for compensation against their employer. When bringing a claim, a worker will need to prove that an employer has failed in their duty of care in relation to the provision of PPE. This duty is not fixed and must adapt to the circumstances and risks that should have been known to the employer.
IBB Claims personal injury lawyers have the specific experience to help and advise with all types of workplace compensation claims, including those arising from the inadequate provision of PPE. We offer a free initial consultation for all PPE claims so we can get a clear understanding of your situation and give an honest assessment on your prospects of bringing a compensation claim.