Refusal to Wear PPE: An Employer’s Guide

Refusal to Wear PPE

The refusal to wear PPE is a persistent issue for employers and supervisors. If your staff are neglecting safety gear, it puts you in a difficult position. How can you convince them to wear their PPE consistently, and if they continue to refuse, at what point is dismissal an option?

Our guide explores the common excuses employees use when refusing to wear PPE and how to answer them. It also explains when employees have legitimate reasons for refusal and what the law says in these situations, including acceptable dismissal.

Why Employees Must Wear PPE

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an umbrella term for all equipment worn or held by workers to protect them against risks to their health and safety, including the effects of extreme weather.

PPE is a widely used risk-reduction measure, appearing in the standard hierarchy of controls. It is ranked as the least effective control, however, mainly because it’s personal protection. It reduces risk for the wearer (or holder) only and does nothing to safeguard other workers or bystanders.

Still, most industrial workplaces and every construction site use some form of PPE. It’s necessary because, although it’s the last line of defence, PPE stays with the worker. Provided the equipment is suitable and used correctly, it can be the difference between a close call and a catastrophic injury.

If your risk assessment shows that PPE can reduce residual risk to workers, you’re legally required to supply it and see it used. These duties are set out in the PPE at Work Regulations 1992 and its 2022 amendment, which extended the regulations to include casual or temporary workers.

why employees must wear PPE

What the Law Says

Under the PPE at Work Regulations 1992 (PPE Regulations), if your risk assessment shows that protective gear can make your workers safer, you must provide PPE and ensure it’s:

  • Assessed before use to confirm it’s fit for purpose
  • Maintained and stored correctly
  • Supplied with instructions on its proper use
  • Used correctly by workers

Regulation 4 sets out in more detail what you need to do to guarantee PPE is suitable for your staff and workplace. Under this specific regulation, you must ensure the provided protective equipment is:

  • Effective against the risks identified in your assessment
  • Suitable and a good fit for the wearer
  • Hygienic (if workers share PPE, it must be cleaned and disinfected between uses)
  • Readily available and supplied with instructions on its use
  • Supported by PPE training on the risks it protects against, proper use and what workers need to do to maintain it in safe working order
  • Provided free of charge

You must follow these rules exactly. First, they’re legally enforceable. Second, you have a legal duty to take all ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure that PPE is used correctly. Following the guidance set out in Regulation 4 lets you pre-emptively resolve most refusals to wear PPE, which are typically based on:

  • Poor fit
  • Ignorance of why PPE is important
  • Lack of training

If a worker raises any of these issues and you don’t have an answer, they have a strong case for a lawful refusal to wear PPE. In these situations, it’s critical you do everything set out by the PPE Regulations to both protect workers and yourself from legal action.

PPE Training

Our Personal Protective Equipment Training course explores all conventional forms of PPE and how to use them effectively to control or eliminate the risk of injury. It also covers how to store and care for PPE to maintain its durability and performance.

Legitimate Grounds for Refusal to Wear PPE

If a worker refuses to wear PPE, it’s essential to determine why. They may have legitimate reasons, which you need to respect or find a mutually agreeable workaround for. These legitimate reasons are:

  • Workers have an existing medical condition that’s made worse by PPE
  • Workers are turban-wearing Sikhs (head protection only)

If workers cannot wear PPE for medical reasons, you have two options. Firstly, you can work with them to order safe and comfortable PPE, such as non-latex gloves for workers with an allergy.

If alternatives aren’t available or practical, you should move that worker to other activities that don’t require PPE to be worn.

Turban-wearing Sikhs are legally allowed to refuse hardhats because of their religious beliefs. If you employ a practising Sikh who chooses to work without head protection and they’re injured, you probably won’t be found liable.

This exemption only applies to head protection, though. You and the employee must do everything else required by the PPE Regulations and general health and safety law. It’s also advisable to avoid this situation entirely by switching Sikh employees to duties where head protection isn’t needed.

Workers with Protected Characteristics

The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to directly or indirectly discriminate against employees with ‘protected characteristics.’ In the context of PPE, this means you need to make reasonable adjustments for certain employees. The example used by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in its PPE Regulations guidance is ordering a steel-toed boot with a raised heel for an employee with a physical impairment.

However, PPE Regulations are not superseded by the Equality Act. There’s no blanket exemption for employees with disabilities or any other protected characteristic. If any employee continues to refuse PPE after you’ve made reasonable adjustments and met all regulations, you probably have legal grounds for dismissal.

Dismissal

Dismissal for refusal to wear PPE is allowed when:

  • PPE is legally required in your workplace (determined by your risk assessment)
  • You’ve followed PPE Regulations exactly

In these situations, employees who ignore PPE are breaking the law. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places general duties on employees to comply with health and safety policies and take steps to protect themselves while working. This duty is reinforced by the PPE Regulations, which require all employees to wear supplied PPE per your instructions (as long as it’s suitable).

Ultimately, all workers must wear PPE if your risk assessment shows it’s necessary. If that’s not happening despite your efforts, dismissal might be worth considering.

Answers for Common Refusals to Wear PPE

Dismissal is the nuclear option for refusing to wear PPE. Before you reach this point, it’s advisable to work with your employees to resolve the issue. Doing so will typically de-escalate the situation, saving you time and money in the long run. It will also help ensure you’re meeting your legal duties in case the employee takes their grievances to the HSE.

Here, we’ve outlined what you can do to address the most common excuses for the insufficient use of PPE.

PPE is Unsuitable

We’re using ‘unsuitable’ to describe any PPE that workers find to be ill-fitting, uncomfortable or impractical, regardless of the protection it offers.

If you’re getting these complaints, the best solution is to involve workers in the PPE selection process. It’s accepted that involving workers in health and safety decisions typically improves engagement. Workers can also consistently suggest ways to make control measures more practical.

PPE is no exception. Letting your workers choose from an approved list or catalogue of appropriate PPE will help ensure it’s functional and fits.

PPE is unsuitable

Others Refuse to Wear PPE

We all take cues from others’ behaviour. If a core group of workers routinely ignore PPE rules, they could inspire similar behaviour. This is especially true if they’re in a management or supervisor role.

Generally, senior staff will respond to a quick word on wearing the correct PPE. It’s vital that they use PPE any time they’re in an area where it’s necessary, no matter how brief. Junior staff will notice and recognise how seriously you take PPE.

I Didn’t Know I Needed PPE

If employees are honestly unaware of the need for PPE, you’ve failed in your duties. You need to make workers aware of the risks they face and the controls you’ve implemented to protect them. You also need to provide training that explains the consequences of refusing to wear PPE.

Finally, don’t overlook safety signs. Signs are a legal requirement if they can make your workplace safer. Well-placed mandatory signs, which include instructions on wearing PPE, could be the reminder workers need. They’re also evidence that you’re doing what you can to ensure the correct PPE is used.

I’ve Never Needed PPE Before

Health and safety regulations in the UK are designed to prevent harm. If accidents and injuries are rare, it’s a sign that risk-control measures are working, not redundant.

But it’s easy to get this the wrong way around. Working for a long time without incident can cause employees to lower their guard, and PPE is often the first thing to be neglected.

In these situations, it helps to make the case for PPE clear without causing anyone actual harm. Good training will illustrate why PPE is necessary, even when you think you’re safe. You can reinforce these points with your own experiences or relevant workplace history.

I Don’t Know How to Use PPE Correctly

Workers can’t use PPE effectively if they don’t know how to. Again, you have a legal duty to close this knowledge gap with suitable training.

Ensure that PPE training is part of the onboarding or induction process, and keep records of who’s completed it. New staff can easily slip through the cracks if training status isn’t tracked. Online training providers often include this feature as part of their services. Online courses are also easy to share and scale with your workforce, letting you offer regular refresher training for experienced staff who might be getting complacent.

Where to Find PPE Training

Almost all of the excuses employees lean on can be answered with effective training, which is why you’re legally required to provide it.

Our online PPE Training course covers why PPE is essential and provides practical tips on using, maintaining and storing it.

You can help staff understand how PPE keeps them safe and reinforce it’s expected in your workplace. The course also outlines what employees must do per the PPE Regulations to improve compliance and make it clear that saying no to PPE is unsafe and unacceptable.

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Jonathan Goby
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