Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defence against pesticide exposure. For PPE to be effective, it must be selected, used and maintained correctly.
- chemically impervious gloves and footwear
- washable coveralls and hats
- goggles or face shields.
Pesticide use and associated risks
Pesticides contain active ingredients that control pests by interfering with their natural body functions. These functions may be similar in non-target species, including humans. Therefore, pesticide use presents a potential health risk.
Pest control operators (PCOs) are at greater risk because they are around pesticides every day.
Pesticide exposure and poisoning
Pesticides can take the form of a solid, liquid, powder or gas. There are three main ways in which pesticide can enter the body, depending on the form of the pesticide:
- ingestion (swallowing)
- inhalation (breathing)
- absorbed via the skin or eyes (direct contact).
Poisoning as a result of pesticide exposure may occur shortly after a single exposure (acute poisoning), or gradually after repeated exposures over a period of time (chronic poisoning).
The type, duration and severity of symptoms may vary depending on factors such as the:
- type and concentration of the pesticide
- degree of exposure
- health and age of the person exposed.
In very severe cases of poisoning, seizures and unconsciousness may occur.
As pesticides are toxic and present a potential health risk, there is legislation governing their use, and precautions that should be taken to minimise exposure.
Pesticide use and risk assessments
The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) supersede previous regulations regarding risk assessment and control of hazardous substances. The principles of risk control described in this legislation should be applied to all pesticide use, due to the potential risk involved.
The OHS Regulations specify a four-level hierarchy for controlling the risk of injury, illness or disease resulting from pesticide use:
- Eliminate the risk (that is, cease pesticide use).
- Employ substitution, isolation or engineering controls (for example, change to a less hazardous pesticide, separate people at risk from the pesticide by distance or barriers, or introduce physical controls to prevent exposure).
- Use administrative controls (for example, insisting staff follow certain work practices to avoid exposure).
- Use PPE. PPE should only be used as a control measure when other methods are inappropriate or are inadequate by themselves. This essentially means that the use of PPE is the final line of defence against pesticide exposure. For this reason, it is vital that:
- the correct PPE is selected for each job
- it is worn correctly
- it is carefully maintained.
Personal protective equipment and selection
You should have your own complete set of PPE. The PPE should be selected specifically for you and tested to ensure it fits you perfectly.
When selecting PPE, PCOs should be aware that the PPE recommended is for protection against pesticide only. The job may also require protection against other hazards such as:
- unstable ground
- overhead beams in roofs
- sharp objects, such as screwdrivers used to open bait stations
- fire or heat sources.
To determine which PPE is required for each task, follow three main steps.
1. Read the label and the Safety Data Sheet for the pesticide in question.
Every pesticide in Australia must be registered for use with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). The registration process ensures that each pesticide has an approved label and Safety Data Sheet (SDS). The labels and SDSs are produced according to National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) national codes of practice, which stipulate that appropriate PPE must be specified.
PCOs should carefully read and understand the PPE requirements for every pesticide that they use. If uncertain, you should speak to the pesticide manufacturer or discuss their requirements with the PPE supplier.
Furthermore, PCOs should remember that the PPE listed on the SDS and label is the minimum recommended by the manufacturer. If concerned about exposure, you should conduct a risk assessment and consider alternatives or additional PPE.
2. Complete a risk assessment
Complete a pesticide health risk assessment for the pesticide in question using the hierarchy as described in ‘Pesticide use and risk assessments’ to determine the PPE required.
3. Assess the PPE
Assess the PPE against the following checklist by asking yourself a series of questions.
- Is the PPE appropriate for the task?
- Does the item offer suitable protection from the hazard (pesticide)?
- Is the item compatible with other necessary PPE? For instance, a face shield that cannot be worn correctly due to the presence of a half-face respirator is unacceptable. An alternative PPE, such as a full-face respirator, should be considered.
- Does the PPE suit other hazards associated with the job (for example, handling sharp objects or walking through rough terrain)?
- Is the PPE appropriate for the wearer?
- Is the item free from any sharp or hard edges, protruding wire ends, rough surfaces or similar objects that may cause harm to the user or others?
- Is it possible to put on and take off the item without difficulty?
- Can the item’s closers, adjusters and/or restraint systems be operated without difficulty?
- Does the item fit? For example, PPE should not be too tight or loose, and sleeve and leg length of coveralls should be appropriate.
- Does the item cover the body area intended to be protected, and is coverage maintained during movement?
- Can basic movements be carried out without difficulty? These may include standing, sitting, walking, stair climbing, raising both hands above the head and bending over.
- Does the wearer know how to select, fit and maintain the appropriate PPE?
- Can the item be worn without causing secondary illness or injury such as heat rash or dehydration?
- Does the PPE comply with Australian Standards (AS/NZS)? Items of PPE such as gloves, protective eye wear and respirators should be marked with the AS/NZS number (see ‘Personal protective equipment – Australian Standards’).
Personal protective equipment – correct use
When purchasing PPE, PCOs should check for instructions. Where instructions exist, the person using the PPE should carefully read and understand them.
Employers should ensure that employees are adequately trained and regularly given refresher sessions.
The correct PPE must be worn when:
- handling concentrated pesticides and pesticide containers
- decanting or mixing pesticides
- applying pesticides
- entering a recently sprayed or treated area
- dealing with a spill.
PCOs should use caution when removing or putting on PPE, as the outer surface may be contaminated with pesticide from previous use.
Clothing and equipment worn as PPE should only be put on immediately before working with pesticides. It should be washed down and removed following pesticide application, and stored in a sealed, accessible, clean and dry container. Certain items such as your respirator should be stored in their own separate, sealed container.
PPE should not be worn in the driver’s cabin due to the risk of cross-contamination.
Personal protective equipment – maintenance
Poorly maintained PPE may not provide adequate protection. When pesticides come into contact with PPE, the item can be considered contaminated. Disposable PPE such as latex gloves or certain types of coveralls should be discarded after one use.
All other items should be cleaned after every use and can be reused provided they are in good condition. Cleaning PPE after each use will also extend its protective life.
Damage to PPE to look for includes:
- holes in the material of coveralls and hats, particularly along seams where small tears or unstitching may start
- cracking or scratching in hard materials such as plastic goggles and respirators
- weathering and cracking of rubber on boots, gloves, face shields and respirator straps.
If any damage to PPE renders the item ineffective, it should be replaced immediately.
Personal Protective Equipment programs
If a risk assessment determines that wearing PPE is a necessary control measure, employers have a legal responsibility to supply that PPE to their employees. Companies should also consider establishing a Personal Protective Equipment program (PPE program) as part of the overall control strategy.
Section 7 of Australian Standard AS/NZS 1715 provides a full description of a PPE program for respiratory protection. Such principles could also be adapted to other items of PPE.
The level of detail in the PPE program will vary depending on the size of the company, and the types of pesticides and PPE being used.
The PPE program should be established by management, with one appropriately qualified person designated to take the lead. In a small company, the owner or senior supervisor could head the program. This person should develop a standard operating procedure (SOP) based on:
- justification for the types of PPE selected for employees’ use
- medical screening of employees to ensure they are physically and psychologically suited to wearing the PPE selected (especially with regards to respirators)
- employee PPE training program details, including proper use, equipment limitations, the nature of the hazard and the need for protection
- the assignment of PPE to employees for their exclusive use
- instructions for proper fitting of the PPE
- regular cleaning and disinfecting of the PPE
- proper storage of the PPE
- provision for periodic inspection and maintenance of the PPE and replacement where required
- periodic evaluation by the person heading the PPE program to assure its continued functioning and effectiveness.
The SOP should be included in the safety manual for the business.
Washing contaminated clothing
To wash contaminated clothing safely, follow these steps:
- Keep contaminated clothing separate from all other household washing.
- If possible, use a separate washing machine. Otherwise, be sure to run an empty cycle after washing your contaminated clothing to clean the machine before undertaking household washing.
- Wear protective gloves while handling contaminated clothing.
- Pre-rinse contaminated clothing in the laundry trough or washing machine.
- Wash contaminated clothing in hot water with a heavy-duty detergent (not bleach). Fabric starch can also be used and is effective in removing many pesticide residues. Use the highest water level setting.
- Rinse twice using warm-water rinse cycles.
- Hang the items outdoors to dry. Sunlight and fresh air will help to remove any remaining pesticide residues.
Personal protective equipment – body and head
The rate at which pesticide is absorbed through skin varies across the body. This is due to variations in things such as skin thickness, density of hair follicles and sweat glands.
This means that certain areas of skin are more susceptible to pesticide absorption. The following list ranks body parts in reverse order of rate of pesticide absorption through the skin (relative to the forearm):
- forearm – 1.0
- palm of hand – 1.3
- ball of foot – 1.6
- abdomen – 2.1
- top of hand – 2.3
- scalp – 3.7
- behind ear – 4.0
- jaw – 4.0
- forehead – 4.2
- ear canal – 5.4
- armpit – 7.5
- groin – 11.8.
Personal protective equipment – head, neck and face protection
The head is almost four times more likely to absorb pesticide than the forearm (see ‘Body and head protection’). The ear canal is a particularly susceptible area. For this reason, it is essential that PCOs wear a washable hat or hood when spraying overhead. A wide-brim hat will also help to protect the ears, face and neck.
Face protection is discussed in more detail later, when considering eye protection and respirators.
Personal protective equipment – body-only protection
Many pesticide labels and SDSs specify that coveralls buttoned to the neck and wrist should be worn when handling pesticides. If a risk assessment indicates low risk due to low dermal absorption, low toxicity or little risk of skin exposure, washable cotton coveralls should suffice. Coveralls should be selected in a larger size to allow for easy movement when worn over work clothes.
Do not wear body protection in the driver’s cabin of the vehicle.
If the label or SDS indicates that chemically resistant clothing should be worn, then the PCO should perform a risk assessment to determine if a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) apron will suffice, or whether chemically resistant waterproof coveralls or jacket and pants should be worn
When mixing and preparing very concentrated, toxic pesticides or those with a high dermal absorption rate, waterproof aprons can be worn over coveralls to protect susceptible areas.
If there is a chance of spray or liquid pesticide wetting through coveralls to clothes underneath, waterproof coveralls or jacket and pants should be worn instead.
Coveralls, hats, aprons and any other items worn to protect the body, head and neck, should be maintained properly to ensure adequate protection.
See the ‘Personal protective equipment – maintenance’ for more information.
Personal protective equipment – eye and face protection
Eyes are very sensitive to pesticides and easily damaged. There are a number of ways the eyes can be exposed to pesticide, such as:
- to splashes while mixing and preparing liquid pesticides
- to mist during spraying
- to pesticide dust when it is stirred up or puffed into the air
- from the hands, if eyes are touched or rubbed after handling pesticides
- from vapours, if generated when highly volatile or highly soluble pesticides evaporate.
When considering eye protection for any particular job, PCOs should also take into account whether face protection is necessary and then select the most appropriate option. A number of options are available for protecting the eyes such as:
- safety glasses with brow and side shields
- safety goggles that fit tightly against the face; options that also protect the face include
- face shields with browguard and inwards cupping around the face
- a full face respirator.
You should try on any protective eyewear while you are wearing your respirator and hat to ensure a comfortable and secure fit. Your ordinary prescription glasses or sunglasses may not provide adequate protection from many pesticides, because spray or splashes may get in around the edges.
At the end of each use, face shields and goggles should be:
- rinsed off
- cleaned in soap and water
- rinsed and wiped clean
- hung in a shaded, well-ventilated place to dry.
Any items with rubber or elastic straps should not be hung in direct sunlight as it will rapidly degrade the material.
Personal protective equipment – respiratory protection
Respiratory protective devices (respirators) allow the wearer to breathe air that is free of contamination.
Some respirators supply air from a tank or via a hose (such as SCUBA, air-line or air-hose respirators).
Air-purifying respirators have cartridges that filter out the contaminants from the air before it is inhaled. Some filter out gases such as methyl bromide, and others filter out particulates such as dusts or spray droplets.
Selecting a respirator
Respirators are most often needed when working with fumigants, liquid sprays and dusts to protect against pesticide inhalation. PCOs should carefully read the label and SDS for each pesticide they use to determine the type of respirator required. The choice of respirator is dependent upon factors such as the:
- type and concentration of pesticide
- frequency and length of use
- application method.
Employers should consider implementing a respiratory component as part of their PPE program that is consistent with AS1715 to ensure maximum efficiency of the respirators. See ‘PPE program’ for more information.
The two main types of respirators used by PCOs are non-powered air-purifying respirators in half-face piece or full-face piece. The half-face respirator is designed to provide a close fit over the nose, mouth and chin, and may have one or two replaceable filtration cartridges.
The full-face respirator is designed to protect the eyes, nose and mouth, and provide a seal around the face and chin. It may have one or two replaceable filtration cartridges.
Always check the label or SDS to ensure the appropriate respirator and cartridge has been selected for the pesticide used.
PCOs working with dusts and sprays will require particulate filters for their respirators, usually as part of a combination filter due to the presence of organic solvents.
There are three classes of particulate filter:
- Class P1 – intended for use against mechanically generated particulates (for example, many pesticide dusts and sprays)
- Class P2 – intended for use against both mechanically and thermally generated particulates (for example, metal fumes)
- Class P3 – intended for use against all particulates, including highly toxic materials (for example, beryllium).
PCOs who work with toxic gases, such as methyl bromide, or pesticides that produce organic vapours, should ensure that their respirators are fitted with the appropriate type of gas filter. The types most commonly required for PCOs include:
- Type A – for use against organic gases and vapours (for example, many solvents used in common pesticides)
- Type MB – for use against methyl bromide.
Gas filters are also made for specific chemical types.
Once you have determined the type of gas filter you require, you must then determine which class you require. The classification of gas filters is different to the classification of particulate filters. Each gas filter may be available in one of four classes – P1, P2 or P3. These classes are arranged in order of increasing capacity. The higher the number, the longer the filter will last for a given concentration of gas where other factors remain constant.
Combination particulate and gas filters
Combination particulate and gas filters provide protection against low concentrations of certain gases or vapours. They have an integrated particulate filter of Class P1, P2 or P3.
PCOs most often use a respirator with a combination Class P1 particulate and Type A gas filter. This is because many commonly used pesticides generate droplet particulates, but have solvents that produce organic vapours.
If required, gas filters of specific types can be fitted to a respirator with a separate particulate filter attached on the inlet side.
Always check the label or SDS to ensure the appropriate respirator and cartridge has been selected for the pesticide used.
Use of a respirator
PCOs should ensure that their respirator is compatible with their other PPE such as eyewear and hats. You should also ensure that the respirator fits well every time you wear it to prevent exposure to contaminants. Facial hair may become an issue if a good seal is not achieved between the respirator and the face.
The fit of a respirator can be checked using a positive fit test and/or a negative fit test.
Positive fit test
To perform a positive test, fit the respirator on to your face and adjust the head and neck straps to achieve a good seal and comfortable fit.
Cover the exhalation valve with your hand(s) (as illustrated below) and gently exhale. If any air escapes, the seal is not correct, and you should refit the respirator and retest. If you cannot achieve a proper seal, choose another size or shape of respirator.
Negative fit test
To perform a negative test, fit the respirator on to your face and adjust the head and neck straps to achieve a good seal and comfortable fit.
Cover one filter air intake with each hand (as illustrated below). Hold your breath for ten seconds.
If any air enters the mask, the seal is not correct, and you should refit the respirator and retest. If you cannot achieve a proper seal, choose another size or shape of respirator.
Respirators should be cleaned regularly as follows (and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions):
- remove the filters
- wipe all surfaces down with warm, soapy water
- rinse well
Respirators should be stored in a clean, dry, airtight container, away from oil and corrosive substances, and out of direct sunlight.
All parts of the respirator should be inspected regularly for deterioration and filters should be replaced regularly. PCOs may find that breathing becomes more difficult as filters become choked with trapped particles. If odours can be detected while using a respirator, it is highly likely that:
- you do not have an adequate fit
- the filters are not working effectively and should be replaced
- the wrong type of filter is fitted for the pesticide being used.
Personal protective equipment – hand and foot protection
Latex or thin disposable gloves are easily damaged and do not provide adequate protection from pesticide exposure, even if they do allow PCOs greater movement when performing delicate operations like nozzle adjustment.
Elbow-length PVC or nitrile rubber gloves usually satisfy the label or SDS requirement for protective gloves. If the label does not specify the need for hand protection, latex gloves may help to prevent accidental exposure or provide protection from other workplace hazards.
If in doubt about the type of gloves required, PCOs should check with the chemical manufacturer or PPE supplier that the gloves purchased provide adequate protection from the chemicals used.
The ends of elbow-length gloves should be folded over slightly to the outside to minimise the risk of pesticide trickling inside. To further prevent contamination, PCOs should ensure their hands are clean and free of pesticide residue before donning gloves.
Each pair of PVC or nitrile rubber gloves should be checked for holes and signs of wear before every use.
Gloves should be rinsed off after use, and regularly cleaned thoroughly by turning them inside out, washing them in warm soapy water and hanging them out to dry. Gloves should be filled with water while cleaning to check for leaks.
You should have several pairs of gloves available, so you can easily get a clean pair in the event of a spill.
Ideally, chemical-resistant boots such as rubber gumboots should be used when working with liquid pesticides. This is because the chemicals will run off immediately and any residue can be easily removed following application.
Many PCOs wear leather boots, such as Blundstones. Although these boots are sturdy and offer protection from falling objects and rough terrain, the leather is not impervious to liquid and can readily absorb pesticides.
Leather boots must be treated regularly with waterproofing agents to ensure they remain impervious. However, in the event of a spill, where leather boots are extensively contaminated with concentrated pesticide, a risk assessment should be conducted to determine if they will still provide adequate protection or whether new boots should be purchased.
To further reduce the risk of pesticide exposure as a result of contamination of the legs and feet, pant legs should be worn on the outside or over the top of boots. This prevents pesticides from running down the pant leg and collecting inside boots.
For additional foot protection in certain situations, you can wear disposable boot covers, which provide a fluid and particulate barrier. Use caution, however, as they may provide only limited chemical splash protection.
PCOs should carry a separate pair of shoes to use before and after using pesticides. Boots used when handling and applying pesticides should not be worn in the driver’s cabin because there is a risk of cross-contamination.
Boots should be washed down following the application of pesticide and stored in the rear of the vehicle separate to both the chemical storage area and clean items. They should be checked regularly for damage and replaced as necessary.
Personal protective equipment – Australian Standards
All PPE must comply with Australian Standards (AS/NZS) and will often be marked with the Australian Standards logo and the corresponding number. When selecting PPE, look for the AS number or symbol printed on the product, as follows.
AS/NZS 1715 – Selection use and maintenance of respiratory protective devices
AS/NZS 1716 - Respiratory protective devices
AS/NZS 1336 – Recommended practices for occupational eye protection
AS/NZS 1337 – Eye protectors for industrial applications
AS/NZS 2161 – Occupational protective gloves
AS/NZS 2210 – Occupational protective footwear
AS/NZS 4501 – Occupational protective clothing