For many years,  Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) enjoyed a place at the forefront of safety improvement. In the early days, and on the upper slopes of the  Bradley Curve, many organisations focused firmly on ensuring their staff had the right PPE provision to keep them safe.

Of course, this wasn’t enough to create sustainable safety improvement, and Safety practitioners rightly began to shift their focus to more sophisticated approaches: actions around the higher layers of the Hierarchy of Controls; leadership and safety culture development; and the implementation of more advanced methodologies such as behavioural safety and human factors programmes. As a result, in many organisations PPE slipped off the safety radar and became increasingly commoditised, with price often becoming the primary factor in selecting both products and suppliers.

Therefore it’s understandable that PPE has become much less compelling as a focal point, in a field where there are much more enticing areas of study - and opportunities for peer-adulation and appreciation. But the commoditisation of PPE brings with it some significant dangers.

Read on to see the potential impact, the dangers, of treating PPE as a commodity– and the ripple effect that could touch on wider areas of your safety performance, and your overall business effectiveness.

1. Poor quality PPE

Commoditising PPE puts incredible pressure on PPE suppliers to compete on price - and price alone.

When margins become wafer thin, product quality is highly likely to suffer, and this can directly affect the level of protection you can receive  – such as the cut resistance of your gloves, or the impact protection of your hard hats.

Some suppliers cannot resist the temptation – when their margins have been beaten down in the procurement process – to “spot buy” often inferior products at the fringes of the market, to rebuild the profitability of Customer accounts via the back door. In the worst cases, this can even result in them (knowingly or not) sourcing and supplying counterfeit items that don’t even meet the correct certification requirements.

Critically, poor quality PPE can also impact wearer acceptance and compliance. It can be frustrating and uncomfortable to wear and work in, meaning you can waste your budget on  PPE that people simply don’t want to wear  – and wouldn’t be much help if they did.

2. Low wearer engagement with Safety programmes

When you provide PPE to your staff, you’re not just providing a piece of equipment. You’re also demonstrating how seriously you take their safety. Offering poor quality PPE that’s chosen purely on price isn’t a good message to send from a cultural perspective.

Low-quality PPE can also have a wider knock-on effect. A commodity approach can diminish wearer engagement, not just with individual items of Personal Protective Equipment but also with your safety training, awareness and education programmes.

Through providing the wrong PPE, your passionate deployment of other safety efforts could be significantly damaged - if you don’t demonstrate you take safety seriously, in an area as fundamental as PPE, then why would your staff?

3. Lack of Safety expertise in the Procurement process

Commoditisation is essentially the process of making purchasing decisions, about apparently similar products,  based almost solely on price considerations.  Who better to handle that process than your finance and procurement teams, you might think?

The shift to commoditisation can see  PPE supply decisions being made by Procurement professionals with little or no safety expertise. Procurement teams often – understandably - don’t grasp the real-world implications of PPE provision in the way that your safety teams and frontline workforce do, which can lead to suboptimal and damaging purchasing decisions.

4. Supplier “leakage” and one-off relationships

Across all your PPE provision, it’s unlikely a single supplier will offer the lowest price for every product. Commoditisation can, therefore, lead to purchases being made from multiple suppliers on a price-driven basis -  meaning your provider base can range from the most  reputable supplier, through peripatetic mobile vendors, to “a friend of a friend.”

This sort of “leakage” can bring with it a range of unanticipated consequences including:

  • Poor PPE inventory management and control
  • Limited visibility of overall purchasing patterns
  • Ad-hoc, inefficient PPE purchases
  • Procurement of PPE items that simply don’t meet your basic safety requirements

However, it’s the lack of strong, lasting relationships that could pose the biggest danger.

With multiple, zero-commitment relationships and low margins, it’s going to be virtually impossible to develop the level of supplier partnering, attention and involvement that you need, to help you deliver your safety agenda effectively.

5. False economies

Despite the risk of inferior quality, supplier leakage and inaccurate purchasing, the commoditisation of PPE has one huge apparent advantage: the price is right.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In practice, a higher per-item cost isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  • Low-cost PPE often comes with a very limited lifespan and, through constantly replacing and re-ordering, the overall cost per year grows considerably.
  • When provided with high-quality PPE (e.g. great-looking safety sunglasses) staff tend to look after them and use far fewer units over time – which can be a significant long-term saving

Finally, with multiple suppliers and low margins, commoditisation decreases your negotiating power - if you use economies of scale effectively, you should be able to get the best quality without blowing your budget.

6. A higher number of injuries and deaths

Finally, the true danger of PPE commoditisation is at the front line, where your staff faces day to day exposures that their PPE is intended to mitigate.   

If they are provided with unreliable protection, chosen purely on price, it’s their health, safety, and wellbeing that are ultimately at risk.

A single accident comes at a considerable cost. It’s not just the financial impact of compensation and insurance – it’s the human and cultural cost you could feel across your organisation for months, even years to come.

The commoditisation of PPE is an attempt to control costs. If that cost control results in a serious injury – or worse - it could be a “saving” that’s impossible to recover from.

At Anchor Safety, we’re proud to become embedded, proactive parts of our customers’ businesses, treating their safety challenges as if they were our own. Our customers come to us with problems and we solve them, whether that’s through existing products or co-creation and innovation to tailor bespoke items.

See how real value in PPE goes beyond product pricing. Find out about the Anchor Experience.