Staying Safe on the Worksite: Personal Protective Equipment and Best Practices for Protecting Workers on the Jobsite

Posted on 05/23/2023

When you're a duct cleaner, your body is your livelihood. If you're hurt, you can't work. This, among many other reasons, makes safety of the utmost importance on the jobsite, and a topic that should be reviewed and revisited to ensure the continued protection and livelihood of duct cleaners everywhere. Central to safety is personal protective equipment (PPE). How a duct cleaner equips themselves while on a jobsite can make the difference between a safe workday and a disastrous one. That's why this continuing education article takes the opportunity to talk to some industry experts about PPE — what kinds of protective equipment are needed, how PPE has changed, and how you and your team can be best prepared to take on hazards you might encounter.


It should be noted that PPE isn’t worn because duct cleaners, and workers in general, aren’t assumed to be careful and diligent — PPE is a precautionary measure. It is the dusty, dirty, and dangerous nature of work environments and all that surround them that make PPE a mandatory part of duct cleaning. PPE should be regarded as any gear that is worn or utilized on a job site that lessens the likelihood of harm or injury, usually worn on or over the most sensitive or prone areas of the body.

Face and Head Protection

Because duct cleaning involves the swirling movement of so much fine particulate matter, the first safety concern that comes to mind for many workers is eye, mouth, and respiratory protection, such as safety goggles, respirators, and masks.

Goggles: Goggles are one critically important piece of PPE that all duct cleaners must wear, but their proper function extends beyond just simple protection. They must offer consistent visibility too. “When you’re using high pressure rail and mechanical brushes, you move a lot of dust and general debris inside the air ducts, and when you do this, you have to be looking at what you’re doing,” said Hugo Hernandez, ASCS, CVI, owner of A Plus Enviro Services. “So, for me, safety goggles are something I make sure all my people wear every day.”

Respirators and Masks: Of course, respiratory safety has always been of paramount importance to duct cleaners dealing with suspected microbials and dust debris on work sites every day. However, it’s also one area where PPE and work safety practices have changed significantly in the last few years, most notably since the COVID-19 pandemic. “Prior to COVID, breathing filters could be cumbersome and bulky, often consisting of a rubber-type mask and replaceable filter,” Hernandez said. “Those required a lot more training, cleaning, and maintenance. But COVID-19 marked the increased availability of higher quality disposable masks. ”Hernandez noted that he and his team now favor the N95 masks as respiratory PPE on jobsites. “Even though these can be a little more expensive, they provide safe, reliable protection from microbials and dust debris," he said.

Hand and Body Protection

Cut-proof Gloves: Cut-proof gloves are a necessary piece of PPE given how many sharp edges constantly surround duct cleaners on jobsites, and because duct cleaners often must use tools like brushes, hoses and cameras, these gloves should always be tried on for adequate fit, flex and grip before selection. Cut-proof or cut-resistant gloves are any type of glove that affords 360-degree protection for a worker’s hands that are made from a fabric that is, most typically, either Kevlar or high-performance polyethylene. “Whenever a cleaner is working around any steel duct work that has been crudely cut (such as access openings), gloves with a cut grade of five or higher must be worn,” Woo said.

A good pair of cut-proof gloves is often a matter of feel. Finding a good pair can require a lot of trial and error in which grip, flex and maneuverability are key considerations. It’s important to always remember that if any tear, rip, or breach in your gloves leads to exposed skin, they must be replaced immediately. The only truly protected hands are completely covered ones.

Knee Pads: A pretty straight-forward PPE item, kneepads are useful to the point of mandatory for any duct cleaning specialist who has to crawl around on hands and knees in general, or where debris or protuberances may be present.

Back Harness: A back harness is a back brace for heavy lifting that includes a support belt and industrial-grade shoulder straps. It is used to aid in the lifting of heavy and bulky objects and equipment. Standard practice says all heavy equipment should be on wheels whenever possible to avoid unnecessary injury or strain to workers. But, because stairs are usually present at homes, residential duct cleaning equipment often must be carried up steps to get it inside. "Back protection is really essential," Hernandez said. But it's not enough to just wear a back harness. Hernandez says it is imperative that all back harnesses are the right size and fit for the employees using them.

PPE for Commercial Jobsites

Commercial duct cleaning jobs often involve larger systems, heavier equipment and added dangers. Therefore, commercial jobs usually demand taking added precautions, and require more specialized pieces of PPE.

Bump Caps: Bump caps are critical PPE for commercial duct cleaners who find themselves crawling around in tight spaces, mechanical rooms, or around large networks of pipe. Softer and more pliant than an actual hardhat, bump caps are padded head coverings that protect against small impacts a worker may incur when bumping into or knocking against a stationary object on a job site.

Bump caps guard against screw protrusions, rough edges, and sudden upward thrusting motions, and can greatly reduce the number of head nicks and bumps suffered by cleaners on commercial jobs. “Bump caps do more active hazard mitigation than most people think and are a big piece of PPE that many outside of our field overlook,” said Mike Woo, Director of Safety and Training at Cochrane Ventilation. “Little cuts and bumps on the head are just as unacceptable as a concussive head-blow.”

Earplugs: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 22 million employed U.S. citizens are exposed to hazardous levels of noise every year. “While duct systems are intended to be quiet, they often travel through places like mechanical rooms where the average decibel level — 85-90 — can induce hearing damage," Woo said. "Active construction sites, where many commercial HVAC jobs occur, average around 105 decibels. “That is why we always keep +30 dB NRR earplugs available for our workers.”

Earplugs are always a good idea when working on a commercial jobsite. For reference, OSHA Hearing Protection Requirements dictate that any employee subject to eight or more hours of noise above 90 dB should be wearing earplugs or hearing protection.

Equipment Upkeep and Continued Awareness

Duct cleaning is an important job that takes place in rugged environments. Remember that your PPE is going to go through a lot of wear and tear when exposed to the elements and jobsites on a day-to-day basis. This makes it important to make sure that your PPE is always intact and in safe working condition. Quickly checking the working order of all necessary PPE can be a good habit to get into before leaving your truck for the day. Routinely checking goggles for scratches, replacing masks, checking gloves for tears or back harnesses for worn threads is never a bad idea and can help keep you and your team safe.


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Best Practices for Personal Protective Equipment

When it comes to finding the best respirator and mask, consider:

  • The Environment: Low-oxygen areas or areas with high contaminants may require an upgrade from a respirator or mask, which may provide no oxygen, to respirators that do.
  • The Filters: Disposable filters should be changed based on the manufacturer guidelines provided — e.g., single-use should be changed after one use. The same goes for cartridges or canisters that help remove contaminants.
  • The Person: If a person has a history of respiratory, cardiac or other issues breathing, it is recommended they consult with a doctor before choosing a respirator/mask.

Safety Goggles:
While safety glasses are more abundant, they are prone to dislodging and may not cover an adequate amount of your face. As such, goggles may offer more protection. Safety goggles should:

  • Be tight fitting
  • Fit over the entire eye socket and surrounding area
  • Have side openings to help prevent fogging

For added safety, Hernandez recommends opting to apply anti-fogging solutions to goggles.

Fall Protection Gear:
When it comes to industrial ductwork, there may be further hazards to consider, namely fall protection. “If a large vertical duct is included in the system, and workers are capable of falling down it, that hazard must be mitigated,” Woo said. “There are different ways to mitigate this type of hazard, but if the shaft cannot be physically blockaded, PPE is called for in the form of a body harness attached to a standard anchor in a fall-restraint setup (essentially, a leash). We use this same setup for other fall prevention.”

"When following a duct system, there’s lots of places with potential fall hazards, including roofs," Woo said. "If you have to climb up to somewhere, there’s usually the possibility that you can fall down from there. If we can fall more than four feet to the next lower surface, OSHA says fall protection is required.”

Bump Caps:
Bump caps are most useful in spaces where “wearer-initiated” actions, such as moving from a kneeling to standing position in a tight space, should be protected against. Bump caps are not substitutes for hardhats in environments that call for them. Always check with site mandates and the working area before choosing a bump cap.

Back Harnesses:
Hernandez says finding the right size and fit is just part of the battle for proper use of back harnesses. Training and technique are also a factor. “Once back harnesses are sized properly, our workers go through a training where they’re taught how to pick up and put down heavy things,” he said. Anyone using a back harness should be thoroughly trained in the proper lifting techniques, such as lifting with the legs and standing over the object being lifted.

Other Safety Resources for You
Safety on the jobsite is ever evolving, as new technology and better practices become available. Thus, it is incredibly important to stay up-to-date on all things safety. Below are recommended resources to review for increased safety on the jobsite:

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 edition of DucTales.



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