Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Overview Vector

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): An Overview (2024)

by | Updated: May 4, 2024

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential in safeguarding healthcare workers from a myriad of risks, including infectious agents, chemical spills, and physical injuries, encountered in their daily duties.

This article explores the various types of PPE used in healthcare, detailing how each item serves as a critical barrier against potential hazards.

What is Personal Protective Equipment?

Personal protective equipment (PPE) refers to the garments and equipment worn by healthcare workers to protect themselves from infections, injuries, and other hazards while providing care. There are various types of PPE, which serve to create barriers between healthcare professionals and potentially infectious materials, hazardous drugs, or contaminated surfaces.

The use of PPE is crucial in preventing the spread of infectious diseases, especially in settings like hospitals and clinics where workers may be exposed to pathogens carried by patients.

Proper use involves not only wearing the correct items for specific tasks but also following protocols for putting on and taking off these items to avoid contamination.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Vector Illustration

Types of Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective equipment (PPE) used in healthcare settings is diverse, each type designed to protect different parts of the body from various hazards such as infectious agents, chemical splashes, or physical injuries.

Here are some of the primary types:

  • Gloves: Protect hands from contamination with infectious materials, hazardous drugs, and other harmful substances. Gloves are available in various materials including latex, nitrile, and vinyl.
  • Gowns/Aprons: Used to protect skin and prevent soiling of clothing from blood, body fluids, and other potentially infectious materials. Gowns can be disposable or reusable and are chosen based on the level of protection required.
  • Masks: Include surgical masks and respirators (like N95 masks). Surgical masks protect against large droplets, splashes, or sprays of bodily fluids, while respirators provide a closer fit to filter out airborne particles.
  • Face Shields: Protect the face, mouth, nose, and eyes from splashes and sprays. Face shields are often used in conjunction with masks for added protection.
  • Goggles: Protect the eyes from splashes of infectious material, hazardous chemicals, and even impacts. Unlike face shields, goggles offer a secure fit around the eyes, providing better protection against fine particles.
  • Caps and Hood: Used to cover hair to prevent contamination of the surgical field or clean areas and to protect the wearer from infectious materials.
  • Shoe Covers: Provide a barrier against potential contamination from the floor and reduce the tracking of materials into clean areas.
  • Respirators: Besides N95 masks, more advanced respirators like powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) are used in higher risk environments to provide a high level of respiratory protection.

Note: Each type of PPE is selected based on the risk of exposure and the nature of the activity being performed, ensuring that healthcare workers are adequately protected in different scenarios. Proper training on the use, donning, and doffing of these items is crucial to maximize their effectiveness.

Why is PPE Important?

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is crucial in healthcare settings for several key reasons:

  • Protection Against Infections: PPE provides a barrier between healthcare workers and harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This is especially important in preventing the spread of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, MRSA, and influenza, which can be transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, airborne particles, or contaminated surfaces.
  • Safety of Healthcare Workers: Healthcare workers are at risk of exposure to various hazards, not only biological, but also chemical, physical, and radiological. PPE helps protect them from these risks, ensuring their safety and health while they provide care.
  • Prevention of Cross-Contamination: Proper use of PPE helps prevent cross-contamination between patients and between different areas within healthcare facilities. This is critical in maintaining sterile environments, especially in areas like operating rooms and intensive care units.
  • Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Health and safety regulations often require the use of appropriate PPE to protect workers from occupational hazards. Compliance with these regulations not only ensures legal adherence but also promotes best practices in health and safety.
  • Patient Protection: By using PPE, healthcare workers can avoid transmitting potentially harmful pathogens to vulnerable patients, particularly those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing health conditions.
  • Community Health: By controlling the spread of infectious diseases within healthcare settings, PPE also plays a role in protecting the broader community. This is particularly important during outbreaks or pandemics, where healthcare settings can be central to disease transmission.

Note: Overall, the use of PPE is fundamental in creating a safe working environment for healthcare professionals, protecting patients, and preventing the broader spread of diseases.

FAQs About Personal Protective Equipment

What Does PPE Stand For?

PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment. It refers to the protective clothing and devices worn by individuals to minimize exposure to specific hazards, particularly in a workplace or healthcare setting.

PPE acts as a barrier against environmental hazards such as chemicals, infectious materials, and physical injuries.

What are the 4 Basic Types of PPE?

The four basic types of Personal Protective Equipment used especially in healthcare and industrial settings are:

  • Respiratory Protection: This includes items like masks and respirators (e.g., N95 masks) that protect against inhaling harmful substances, such as airborne pathogens, chemical vapors, or dust.
  • Eye and Face Protection: Equipment such as safety goggles and face shields protect the eyes and face from splashes, sprays, impacts, and infectious droplets.
  • Hand Protection: Gloves serve as a protective barrier to prevent skin contact with chemicals, infectious agents, and other hazardous materials, reducing the risk of contamination and injury.
  • Body Protection: Gowns, aprons, and coveralls shield the wearer’s body from exposure to hazardous materials, help manage infection control, and reduce the risk of cross-contamination in medical and industrial environments.

What is the OSHA Standard for PPE Use?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard for PPE use, specified under OSHA Standard 1910.132, requires employers to assess the workplace to determine if hazards are present, or are likely to be present, which necessitate the use of personal protective equipment.

It mandates that suitable PPE be provided to employees at no cost and that employees receive training on the proper use, maintenance, and disposal of PPE.

This standard also requires that the PPE be adequately maintained and regularly inspected for wear and tear to ensure continued effectiveness.

When Should Personal Protective Equipment Be Worn?

PPE should be worn whenever there are risks present that cannot be adequately controlled by other means such as engineering controls or administrative actions.

In healthcare, this includes situations where workers are exposed to potential infectious diseases, handling hazardous materials, or at risk of physical injuries. It is also required during procedures where there is a likelihood of splashes or exposure to hazardous substances.

Note: PPE is a critical component in safeguarding individuals against the risks associated with their working environment, ensuring both safety and compliance with health standards.

Final Thoughts

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is indispensable in the healthcare sector, serving as the first line of defense against various occupational hazards.

From gloves and gowns to masks and respirators, each type of PPE plays a crucial role in protecting healthcare workers and patients, thereby preventing the spread of infections within healthcare settings and the community at large.

The proper selection, use, and management of PPE are pivotal not only for compliance with health and safety regulations but also for fostering a safe and effective healthcare environment.

As the healthcare industry continues to face new challenges and infectious diseases, the importance of PPE remains more critical than ever, underscoring the need for ongoing training, adherence to protocols, and advancements in PPE technology.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Faarc, Kacmarek Robert PhD Rrt, et al. Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
  • Kening MZ, Groen K. Personal Protective Equipment. [Updated 2023 Feb 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024.

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