Every day we see a slew of reports and opinions about the effectiveness of personal protection equipment. PPE has entered our vocabularies in a way that none of us anticipated and everyone seems to have an opinion on why we should, or shouldn’t, be using it. The debate heats up daily and it is clear that the confusion about its use has spread into our lives and is leading to mico-aggressions. I’ve been insulted and mocked for wearing a mask and have been bullied by people coming too close to me and invading my personal space.
We are moving rapidly towards the reopening of more public and shared spaces like libraries, community buildings and schools and this has raised the discussion about the “need” for PPE. Many organisations and employers are carefully picking over the evidence about how effective PPE really is, but are they asking the right questions?
Over many decades we have seen improvements to working spaces and practices that are designed to make the quality of our working lives better. Thanks to persistent campaigning by unions and good employers (and enlightened MPs) many bad or discriminatory practices have been removed and replaced with ones more suited to supporting the real needs of employees. We still have a very long way to go, but overall we have seen a steady pattern of improvement in working practices and in the spaces in which we work. Many of these improvements have been ostensibly small, but have made huge positive differences to employees.
CV-19 is not going anywhere and we should accept that any workplace changes we make now may need to be in place for years. The long period of furlough and isolation has left us all feeling confused and scared. Most of us are grieving, or scared, or vulnerable, or shielding, and are now worried that we will have to step back into the world of work as if nothing happened. There is a significant risk of not taking these mental and physical health issues seriously. When we ask “is PPE effective against the virus?” employers are actually asking the wrong question. What they should be asking is, “what do my employees need to feel safe enough to return to work?”
Yes, this may well be costly (and this is why we need to campaign for Government support for this equipment) but that is almost irrelevant. Once upon a time, it was costly to remove asbestos from workplaces, or to install fire escapes and fire safety equipment, but everyone would agree that this was absolutely necessary to ensure safety. I remember the huge upheaval and expense of installing fire safety equipment in one of the buildings in which I worked. That was over thirty years ago and that equipment has never once been used, but if it was ever needed it would save many lives and it made us all feel safer working there. If the argument is only about cost, then this should be clear. If it’s about money, say it’s about money and don’t try to say it’s about what’s right for your staff. Going around and around in circles examining conflicting reports about the effectiveness of PPE is doing workers a disservice because it ignores one key question – “would PPE help you to feel safe at work?”
This is the most important question of all. People are scared, and with everything that has happened over the last few months those fears are deep and real and to ignore them is to throw out all the good work we have done to recognise issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Repeatedly telling your workers that they are wrong and that their fears are not valid is bullying, and it dismisses all the progress that has been done to push back against bullying in the workplace.
We need to stop asking, “is PPE necessary?” If PPE makes employees feel safe in the workplace as well as supporting their mental health and wellbeing, it’s absolutely necessary.
Dawn Finch is a writer and activist.