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Winds of change blowing through the PPE sector

May 04 2016 17:11
Anton Ressel

ONE INDUSTRY sector that does not seem to receive the coverage and focus that it deserves is the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) sector. This is surprising, since a recent research report undertaken by MarketsandMarkets, one of the premium forecasting and market research firms in the world, found that the PPE industry looks set to grow globally by nearly 7% per annum, to reach a value of over $52.4bn by 2020.

Those are some serious numbers.

For those not familiar with the industry, PPE in essence refers to ‘protective clothing, helmets, goggles, or other garments or equipment designed to protect the wearer's body from injury or infection’ (Wikipedia). In other words, stuff to keep your staff safe. 

Chief consumers of PPE include mining, oil and gas, construction, waste management, fisheries and manufacturing, but most industries utilise PPE in some way or another.

Recent years have seen a number of changes and new trends blowing through the industry, particularly in South Africa, with its unique labour landscape and challenges of slow economic growth and a flagging currency.

We spoke to Michael Fortune, Director and Head of Sales for Uhambo Procurement and Distribution, a PPE sourcing, distribution and consulting company based in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, to find out where things are headed.

What are the main trends locally in terms of PPE at the moment?

There is increasing friction between quality, comfort and price, as the falling rand has seen many industries turn to local manufacturers as imports become too expensive. This has created a monopoly situation in some cases, with certain manufacturers controlling vast segments of the market and keeping new entrants out. 

This, coupled with stricter legislative and safety requirements in many industries, has placed Safety Officers in a difficult position – they have to watch their PPE budgets and look for the best value, but if staff get injured on the job, the consequences could be crippling.

From a technical perspective, improved technology has led to lighter, more comfortable and durable options.

Another trend is increased company branding on PPE products, especially overalls. Reflective tape is now also provided as a standard feature on almost all overalls sold, as night and day visibility has become a major priority.

What are the possible consequences of being non-compliant or doing the bare minimum as far as PPE is concerned?

Just look at what happened at Lily mine recently, where three workers were trapped underground – that situation basically ended that business.

RELATED: LILY MINE UPDATE: Workers get paid R650 each for a month's work

We actually distribute a product that works on a wireless network and tracks an individual miner’s exact whereabouts and movements at all times. In this case, had the miners been wearing this device (which doubles as a high-beam light), rescuers would have been able to pinpoint exactly where they were after the cave-in happened and not only would the chances of rescue been much higher, but millions in costs could have been saved.

This is only one example and clearly Lily mine could not have foreseen this happening, but people are starting to realise that it is often better to spend more on PPE in the short term to save lives, costs and reputational damage in the long-term.

What are the three most important things that a safety officer needs to know?

· What equipment does the scope of work require to ensure the workers' safety is not compromised?
· Does the equipment conform to the necessary industry specifications and legislative requirements (EN, CE, SABS & SANS Certification)?
· What are the possible consequences of using equipment that does not conform to the necessary specifications, especially in terms of litigation in the event of injury or death of a worker?

He or she must also have an understanding of how to test whether or not the Personal Protective Equipment supplied conforms to the necessary specifications.

From left Michael Fortune, Vanessa Fortune and Roger Alwar  of Uhambo Procurement & Distribution

What are some of the constraints your business has faced? How do you plan to overcome these?

While our BEE status has assisted us to get a foot in the door, there are competitors who have been operational for decades and even though most do not meet the necessary BEE requirements, they still receive the majority of business from the private sector.

There is also a challenge in that a few large manufacturers dominate this sector and there is huge competition between their distributors, so one often has to be the cheapest to get the job, not the best, which goes against our operating philosophy. To mitigate these issues, we are in the process of becoming ISO 9001:2015 compliant and we are doing NOSA, HIRA and NOSA Advanced OSHACT short courses.

We intend utilising this certification as a value add to our clients. We will be able to recommend products based on the legal framework and legislative requirements as an additional service offering. We are also importing new products that are not locally produced and acquiring sole distributorship for these items, such as the wireless mining lamps and top-of-the-range fire boots.

Finally, we are on a mentorship programme funded by PetroSA that has assisted us a lot in terms of strategic focus.

Do you have any suggestions to help companies implement more effective PPE in the workplace?

Training in the workplace is very important, as just issuing the PPE to a worker without the necessary training could potentially put his or her life at risk. As just one example, when wearing flame retardant or fire resistant overalls, the employee may not wear polyester or poly cotton garments underneath, as these are highly flammable and render the functionality of the overall null and void!

The same applies to anything worn over flame retardant or fire resistant garments; these must be manufactured with the identical fire resistant properties, or once again it will render the actual item non-compliant, and could result in an unhappy situation for the wearer….

What innovations or new designs excite you in the industry?

The dual functionality of various products supplied excites us, as well as an increased focus on products that do not just meet their intended purpose, but are also comfortable and look good. In the past, most PPE products were often dull and utilitarian, and the worker did not feel like a valued stakeholder while wearing them.

The trend overseas is for protective clothing to be comfortable, look attractive and professional and yet be fully functional. All PPE is adopting this trend, with the intention of making every employee not just feel safe but also like a valued member of the team, which is good for business ultimately.

* Anton Ressel, a regular Fin24 small business columnist and expert answering user questions, is a mentor and business development specialist.


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