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PPE – What can possibly go wrong?

Dr Justin Schooth using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Personal protective equipment (PPE) are the clothes and devices that we wear as a last line of defence to keep us safe from hazards in the workplace, such as injury and diseases.

Many people think that once we don PPE (in the case of working with livestock, this often consists of a very sexy disposable space-suit/P2 mask/gloves and face shield), that we are safe – if not invincible – from catching disease from the livestock we are handling. This misconception is far from the truth. Whilst PPE does reduce the risk of us from injury and disease, it can and often does fail, sometimes almost catastrophically.

Here are some of my experiences when PPE has failed:

  1. I was scoping a Hendra-vaccinated horse. PPE worn included a disposable face shield, gloves and a P2 mask. The horse ‘sneezed’ whilst being scoped, with my head <30 cm from the horse’s face, resulting in the face shield and mask, in an almost cartoon-like fashion, being blown of my head.
  2. I was carrying out horse dentistry, the day was 37°C and 85% humidity. PPE being worn included a face shield, gloves and a P2 mask. Before finishing the 1st dental, I was unable to use the P2 mask any longer, as sweat had completely saturated the mask and I was unable to breathe.
  3. Hendra exclusion on horse, 1:00 am in the dark, trying to don suit, mask, gloves, face shield, and gumboots (most people struggle to dress themselves properly in the dark, let alone put on PPE properly to the standard needed!). Then examining and taking samples from said horse, in far less than optimal light, with a very nervous, unhappy horse being examined by what he must have considered an alien! Whilst doing this, the rain gods then decided they would assist by soaking the ‘space suit’ and having potentially infective material running through, under and around said PPE.

PPE is essential to help protect yourself, but no matter how careful you are, it is no guarantee of safety. It should be a last line of defence, not your only line.