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I'm supervising an intern working on a customer site away from the office at the moment. This is an industrial environment and the site rules specify full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) - Hard Hat, Glasses, Hi-Vis.

These rules were not being strictly enforced and we became lax with keeping our safety glasses on. As we changed work area and activity, I observed the rules becoming more strictly enforced and noted the majority of other contractors / customer staff had resumed wearing their safety glasses.

The following day; I met this intern for breakfast at the hotel as usual. I asked him to ensure he had his safety glasses with him and was wearing them in the new work area. He asked me why, to which I responded that they were the site rules. He continued to ask "if there was something he didn't know".

I responded "The correct answer if someone asks you to wear the PPE specified by the site is 'yes, no problem'", and ended the conversation.

Honestly, I was irritated by him questioning the completely reasonable and simple request - although I also realize that he was attempting to gain more context to the reasoning behind the request.

I'm concerned that had he been asked by the safety officer, he would not have complied immediately which could have risked our removal from site.

Was my response an overreaction, how else could I have got my point across?

EDIT:
Thank you all for your comments and answers. I've subsequently had a conversation with my colleague to clear the air and explain my reasoning. We also had a conversation about safety equipment in general.

A few clarifications / answers to some comments -
- Even though it's an industrial site; we still spend a vast proportion of our day staring at a laptop screen. Control systems have a lot of code / configuration / networking!
- Overall; I don't believe the glasses are always necessary (else, I would have worn them at all times). However, it's easier and safer for site management to enforce a global rule to cover the subset of areas and situations where they do add protection. Equally; this has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my own behaviours and ensure that I am not becoming complacent (someone commented about the 'unknown' - this is exactly why we wear PPE).

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    "[...] which could have risked our removal from site"... Maybe that was the thing he didn't know. – dim Jul 5 at 8:50
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    I can't really help you but thank God finally someone who doesn't work in software! Welcome! – David Jul 5 at 8:53
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    If the request is completely reasonable and simple, how come you don't have a better answer than "it's the rules" when asked why he has to wear them? Not saying he's right to question it, but saying someone should do something "because it's the rules" is the least convincing way to convince someone they should do something. Why not say something like "because it's cheaper than eye-replacement surgery" or something? – ESR Jul 5 at 9:38
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    It seems highly relevant to the question whether the PPE requirement actually serves a purpose, and if not, whether it is merely a pointless nuisance or is actively increasing risk. The right response in the scenario where the work environment is full of sparks or chemicals or dust that you need glasses to protect against is very different to the right response in the scenario where not only are there no such risks, but steaming up of the eyeglasses is blinding the sweaty workers while they're in the middle of carrying heavy objects around, putting them and everyone around them in danger. – Mark Amery Jul 5 at 11:05
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    @David why do you assume the OP doesn't work in software? Doing software work for a company that makes control systems for chemical plants (my previous job) means that working at a client site requires PPE. – krb Jul 5 at 14:37

12 Answers 12

24

It's fantastic that you want to come up with ways to handle that sort of thing better in the future. I think there are both proactive and reactive things you might have approached slightly differently. (It's always easier when you're not in the moment, of course!) You can still go back and do them retoactively now.

Proactive

Instead of just saying to please ensure he wore his PPE, provide a bit of context. It's natural to wonder about the reasons for a change, after all, so providing them up front is useful.

Hey, I know we've been pretty lax about wearing our PPE, but we really should be more diligent. The PPE is there for our benefit, there's a reason we wear these things on jobs like this. Besides, if we get caught not using our PPE, that's a safety violation which could cause trouble for the company on this project. Also, I noticed that when we switched to this new task, people are being a bit more diligent with it. So all in all, please make sure you have your goggles and such and wear them. I'll do the same. Really we should have been doing that all along.

"I'll do the same" is useful for making sure the intern doesn't feel singled out. Besides, you want to wear the PPE for the same reasons you want the intern to, and to set a good example.

Reactive

The way you described the intern's reaction, it seemed to me he/she was concerned that things had gotten more dangerous. So when he/she continued to ask "if there was something he didn't know", perhaps:

Not as far as I know. It's just that (insert any of the proactive version that wasn't already covered, or perhaps repeat a bit for emphasis).

Retroactive

Since you're not happy with the way that encounter went, as Martijn commented, you can go back and do some of the above now. E.g.,

Sorry if I came off a bit abrupt the other day about the PPE. No, there's nothing you don't know, it's just that we really should be wearing it for our own good and (insert any of the proactive version).

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    Thought about writing an answer myself, but I guess this sums it up. OP's reaction sounds like he's new to being in a teacher / leadership position and interpreted the situation as a challenge to his authority at first and posted here as he started to realize there was no reason not to explain his reasoning to the intern. – JollyJoker Jul 6 at 12:53
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    I've accepted this answer because (A) I was able to have a conversation about PPE and the real reasons why I had asked - both down to appearances and because we were entering an area with a lot more activity from other contractors (B) I think it's completely correct I could have explained this proactively avoiding the question in the first place. – Spaig87 Jul 7 at 0:24
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Was my response an overreaction, how else could I have got my point across?

Quoting from your post:

Honestly, I was irritated by him questioning the completely reasonable and simple request - although I also realize that he was attempting to gain more context to the reasoning behind the request.

I think that, as this person was an intern (that is, he/she is there to learn and grow), a better response from your part would have been one focused on teaching this person, instead of scolding them.

Perhaps this intern completely ignores the existence of such PPE rules, and thus why they asked if "they were missing something".

A more polite, perhaps better response would have been something along the lines of:

Intern : "Is there something I don't know?"

You : "Yes there is. Here at Acme Co. we follow the PPE rules established by X, and those rules require us to wear safety glasses among other things when in the area. I suggest you review those rules so you are aware of the equipment you should use for your safety."

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    Giving the intern this answer is still an option! "Hey, about your question earlier, ...[this answer]". (This also creates an enviroiment where you can correct your mistakes when you encounter them) – Martijn Jul 5 at 10:14
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    Indeed, nothing stops OP from being still able to help and teach this intern :) good point – DarkCygnus Jul 5 at 11:13
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    Personally, I think the "polite" answer you suggested is merely a passive-aggressive version of the OP's [overtly aggressive] response. A big problem in our modern age, I think, is that somehow, some people have formed the opinion that using more words to say what can be said in less words somehow makes the statement more useful. I agree 100% with "teaching" the intern though: that would involve a response along the lines of why safety equipment might be needed where it isn't obvious. It may only be to avoid legal trouble/make enforcement easier, or it could be genuinely to avoid injury – Daniel Scott Jul 6 at 0:56
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    I should add that I agree that explaining the reasons to this particular intern is the best way to go because it seems as though the Intern may have been looking for a "bigger picture" out of curiosity (are we being audited today? has someone had an accident? are they going to be testing explosives next door today? what has changed?). If the intern had a history of asking "but why?" out of insolence, then the OP's response would be pretty appropriate I reckon (no need to pad a [verbal] slap across the face with extra verbage) :) – Daniel Scott Jul 6 at 1:01
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    I think the safety part of the argument can be set aside. The site guidelines call for the PPE. Not following the rules can lead to contract trouble. Who knows if and when the hammer might fall on this. So whoever is responsible for on-site contractors should ensure that their employees follow the rules, regardless of what others are doing. It is an example of the other golden rule - "He who has the gold makes the rules." – MaxW Jul 8 at 6:07
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These rules were not being strictly enforced and we became lax with keeping our safety glasses on.

Your intern reacted confused, because suddenly the informal rule you all followed (that PPE gear is optional) was no longer the rule to follow; instead now the real rule was to be followed.

As for what you could have done differently: You could have explained to him, that the lax enforcement of the PPE rules was only valid in the past, and that being so lax on this new job site could have severe consequences for your company's business there (e.g. losing the contract, being removed from the site, etc.).

What you should have taught your intern in the past, where you all were lax with the PPE rules, is "Do as I say, don't do as I do".

It's hard for an intern to decipher by themselves, how strictly they need to follow rules when their coworkers don't follow them strictly. If they aren't as lax as their coworkers, they risk being called a stickler, if they are as lax they risk what happened to your intern (being scolded for not following the rules).

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    "Do as I say, not as I do" tends to really rub people the wrong way. It doesn't even work with kids and it only gets worse as people become older. – Erik Jul 5 at 7:48
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    +1 for the first paragraph. The intern might have been asking if there was a specific reason why the rules were suddenly being enforced, e.g. had there been a serious accident, was a safety audit imminent. – Carl Jul 5 at 9:52
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    @Erik I find it actually gets better as people get older, and they understand that the exceptions to the rules might possibly be more nuanced and change without warning... Then they start to understand that they should follow the rule until they learn the subtleties of when they can ignore it. – user3067860 Jul 5 at 13:44
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    @Niko I personally don't agree with that..... If it's needed, you should do it to, not just say it. And if it's not needed... you shouldn't say it. That's teaching an intern to blindly follow guidance without thinking..... I prefer that employees can use their brains and step outside of process when it makes sense. Pushing for "just listen, don't follow what we do", to me, has a good chance of pushing that mindset :/ – Patrice Jul 5 at 19:19
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    +1 for the first. -1 for the bold, which is exactly what they did say to them. 'WE will do as they say, not what they do.' The problem is they are too now, which is valid cause for concern, for what must be either job security or job safety. – Mazura Jul 6 at 2:15
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These rules were not being strictly enforced and we became lax with keeping our safety glasses on.

That means that experienced employees, including you, were lax about wearing the safety equipment.

The following day; I met this intern for breakfast at the hotel as usual. I asked him to ensure he had his safety glasses with him and was wearing them in the new work area. He asked me why

You demonstrated as recently as the day before that safety rules were either a joke, or that there were no safety rules.

The only question you should have expected is "why?"

Honestly, I was irritated by him questioning the completely reasonable and simple request - although I also realize that he was attempting to gain more context to the reasoning behind the request.

Your request at breakfast was the equivalent of telling him he must wear two different colored shoes. You are offended because he was questioning safety rules. But unless you started your conversation with a comment about how you the experienced employee were ignoring safety rules, and you now realize that was wrong, irresponsible and dangerous. Unless you also told him that you the experienced employee were going to be wearing the required equipment 100% of the time you were onsite, then the only response you could have expected is confusion and skepticism.

I'm concerned that had he been asked by the safety officer, he would not have complied immediately which could have risked our removal from site.

That is the exact situation you got the intern into by unwilling to wear the required safety equipment.

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    The only good answer I see here. The question was totally valid. – Alex M Jul 5 at 22:50
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    Indeed. An apology would be appropriate. Although for some other circumstance it would have been an appropriately firm way to talk to your intern. – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 6 at 20:08
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I don't think he was questioning the appropriateness of your instructions. It sounds to me like he may have been scared, not just resistant.

As you said, your team does has not been diligent in observing safety protocols, which suggests that you generally don't consider the job too dangerous. The PPE rules seem like arbitrary guidelines, but your normal tasks don't really raise the issues that they're designed to protect against.

Now everyone starts following the rules. What may be going through his mind is "Why? Is this job much more dangerous than the usual jobs?" That's how I interpret "What aren't you telling me?" You and all the other workers seem to know a reason why they need to be more cautious now, but he's out of the loop. Since this happened when you changed activities, it's not an unreasonable assumption for him to make that there's something different.

In fact, your description in the question doesn't explain why practices have changed. You just said that you "observed" that the rules are being enforced more strictly. Is it because this location is more dangerous, or just because management noticed the problem and decided to improve?

Whatever the reason, explain it to the intern. Treat him like an adult, not an impertinent child. These rules exist for a reason; even if there's only a tiny chance of injury, the consequences could be dire. But in the end, make it clear that rules are rules, and the fact that you've been lax in the past doesn't mean it's OK going forward.

  • I'd blame Chernobyl and I'd use it to explain. "If the masks worked, you'd be wearing them." But even if we were standing here naked, we'd still have our hats on, yea? – Mazura Jul 6 at 2:01
  • What a dreary movie. The Soviets lacked many things, but they did have chroma. Yeah, that was done for drama, but the general/engineer should have said "we're sitting in an office", and "dust control is a big deal" and explained aerosol effects. The Soviets weren't that bad at EH&S. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jul 6 at 18:15
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You did the right thing to insist your colleague wears appropriate PPE. It's disappointing to hear that not everyone is taking PPE requirements seriously, but a lack of adherence doesn't diminish the importance of proper PPE.

Consider taking time to explain your thinking and concern with your colleague. Regardless of his or her status as an intern, he/she can benefit from your experience and from hearing your own thoughts. Consider grabbing coffee with your colleague to discuss:

  1. Reinforcing the importance of PPE
  2. Share that you were concerned both for your colleague's safety, and also about any adverse consequences had a safety inspector observed the lack of PPE
  3. Admit that adherence to the PPE standard isn't uniform, but it's always better to error on the safer side of the norm

You might also consider apologizing for the way you initially handled the discussion if you feel like it didn't go well. Your comment that you expect your colleague to just say "yes" strikes an odd tone and might be worth following up. I think you were expressing frustration about the resistance you felt from your colleague. Share this and let your colleague know you value their thoughts and dissent.

  • I feel like this answer lacks an awareness of the fact that the querent is the intern's supervisor and as such was responsible for the laxity of the rules enforcement in the first place. – Alex M Jul 5 at 22:50
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I've found throughout my life that context is everything. You haven't mentioned what kind of work you do and where in the site your team has been going (i.e. what sort of risks you might actually be exposed to).

Here's a (possibly) fun anecdote to throw into the mix:

A bit of Background about Yours Truly

I happen to work in software, although I have plenty of experience on the tools in my own time as well. I'm an advocate for wearing safety gear when it makes sense, and always paying the right amount of respect to all kinds of tools and machinery - even some of the seemingly benign ones!

At age 40, I still have all my fingers and toes, both eyes, my lungs work very well, and I haven't had any near-misses with table-saw or planer blades or angle grinders ... yet. I've also never driven a chisel into one of my fingers ... yet.

A Funny Story

In one of my contracts (as a software developer), I was doing some on-site software development at a sugar refinery.

The office of the IT department (where I was working) was about 20 metres (60 feet) inside the fenced off "site", and it was the very first [exterior] door you came to after you signed in at the [outdoor] gate.

There was absolutely nothing dangerous between the gate and the IT office door: all of the machinery, overhead cranes, boilers and whatnot were off in separate buildings further down the path. Nevertheless, site rules said that as soon as you walked through the gate you were required to have hard-hat, safety glasses and high-vis on.

So, along with the two colleagues in that IT department, I dutifully put on the safety gear to walk 20 metres ... and then took it all straight off again once inside the building (about 30 seconds later).

During that 30 second walk I felt confident that, should a passing bird decide to relieve itself while flying directly over me, I would be protected from any unpleasantness (not only was I equipped with hardhat and safety glasses, but the high-vis ought to serve as a warning to any nefarious avian too).

Now, admittedly, there was a paved roadway that crossed this path between the gate and the IT department door, and it might be possible that one day a truck could roll on through, or a front-end loader or something of the like - and then it might be good to have a high-vis vest on**, but truthfully, it all felt just a tiny bit silly.

The Moral of the Story

Anyone in my department, or in one of the admin offices a few doors up, could be rightfully forgiven for thinking the same and getting a bit lax with the full clobber.

In our case, the answer to "why should I wear this crazy getup?" was pretty much "because it's the rules - even if the rules are silly".

Beyond that, the only possible explanation anyone could have given would have been a long winded one about how site risk assessments work and how HR departments (and the companies they work for) are required by law to implement silly procedures to cover their a$$es (ar$es to Australians), and how written standards are designed to leave very little room for "operator discretion", and how any contractor not following the [possibly silly] rules will [almost certainly] lose their contract.

[EDIT]

Given that the first comment on this post is something I agree entirely with, I feel I should clarify that I do understand the reasons for the "silly" rules on this particular jobsite - and that is a big part of the reason I put on the silly gear every day I was there.

The rest of the site was filled with some genuinely dangerous stuff (where the safety equipment absolutely made sense).

My point here is not that "safety rules are dumb", it's just that there is often a bigger picture, and - even if the rules are [truly] silly in your particular situation, you'll make everyone else's job around you that much easier if you just shut up and follow those silly rules.

In this particular case, because there were dangerous things in the buildings nearby, and the poor safety officer shouldn't be expected to know where anyone [s]he spots inside the fence at any given moment might be walking to, it's just easier for everyone to wear the damned hat, glasses and vest.

The only practicable option for excluding IT from the PPE rule would have been to move the site fence - and clearly that wasn't going to happen for three people.

[/EDIT]

Anyway ... hopefully that helps in some small way, and if not, hopefully it was in some small way amusing :) (I'm sure there'd be a Dilbert strip or two in there).


** Personally, I reckon I'd spot a truck or a loader miles away, and I've gone my whole life successfully avoiding death by cars and buses doing much higher speeds on the public roads.

Also, it was a little ironic they hadn't mandated steel-capped boots across the whole site (I think they were only required once you passed through some other part of the site further in). So I guess while there was a risk something might have dropped on my head from out of the sky along that path, my toes were somehow safe?

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    This tale is missing the real reason. If something unusual caused you to deviate from your normal crossing procedure, the risk could significantly increase. These procedures may seem pointless, but their design often starts with a real accident where real people died. – Sean Houlihane Jul 5 at 10:13
  • I'd post an aerial shot of the site if I could without risking making it identifiable. I couldn't conceive of any route I could have taken that would have taken me past any of the mill machinery (such a route would literally have required me to walk half the perimeter of the site and then take me through one of the buildings with machinery inside - and - if I did that then I really ought to have been wearing steel-capped boots as well). I hear you though, and I believe that's the reason that any kind of exception would have been too difficult to write into the (silly) rules :) – Daniel Scott Jul 5 at 10:28
  • Also, this particular site's focus on OH&S (Occupational Health and Safety) was, sadly, the result of some very preventable injuries (and one death) on site. They'd had a mildly appalling safety record in previous years. – Daniel Scott Jul 5 at 10:44
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    Great story - allow me to share one of a similar ilk - I was once working on site with a colleague with significant training and experience with rope access. I had limited training - enough to know to ask what the rescue plan was before even climbing into a harness. She wanted to climb out to access some equipment. I asked her not to, explaining I couldn't rescue her if she fell. She then told me she wouldn't fall... so I asked her why she was going to wear the fall protection gear... we ended up returning with 2 trained techs - one to do the work and one in case a rescue was required! – Spaig87 Jul 7 at 1:37
  • @Spaig87 - You did well to look ahead to what might go wrong and what you might need to do to fix it. In my experience, that (along with forming good habits) is what tends to keep fingers and toes attached. Sometimes the habits seem a little silly (like looking over your shoulder every time before changing lanes - or the famous example of Japan Rail staff pointing at everything they need to check as they close doors and start the train), but a good set of habits definitely help on days that you're tired/stressed and may otherwise have a brain-fade that leads to something nasty happening. – Daniel Scott Jul 7 at 2:32
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Interns are fundamentally students (in the US anyway) -- that means they are often used to learning things explicitly, not implicitly. Subtlety is hard to grasp, like what makes one site different from another, whether in strictness of enforcement or actual danger.

You can also advise the intern that when in doubt, as the newest person, seeking explicit guidance can be good, as is following the stricter interpretations of guidelines. (And as he or she gets more experience, then they will get a "feel" for this, just like they did for how much detail each instructor wanted on written work, for example.)

Also, if there are specific safety reasons, that always appeals to the visceral nature. Wear PPE because "something" might happen, or because "people driving XYZ can't always see other employees, so they're looking for the hi-vis as their only sign of other people around -- they will ignore your regular clothes as background noise." Or "it's rare, but tools can get loose and go in unexpected directions -- it's a lot better if they hit your PPE glasses than your actual eyes."

A lawyer friend of mine always points out that Regulations are written in blood. Every "do not" that seems arbitrary on a consumer product? That's because someone "did" the thing.

A great video to show is "Shake Hands With Danger." (It's on archive.org if anyone wants to edit my post to link to it -- the Internet Archive is blocked at my dayjob.) There's also a rifftrax of it. Every accident portrayed in that is based on a real story.

  • I love the "do nots" you come across occasionally for products/situations and they're so weirdly specific that you think "there has to be a story behind that one!" – seventyeightist Jul 6 at 18:43
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The correct way would have been to explain to your intern why that rule is important:

  1. The rules regarding PPE are for their own benefit. We are born with at most two functional eyes, and they have to last our whole life. The small discomfort of wearing protective goggles while working stands in no comparison to the discomfort caused by being permanently blind due to an avoidable eye injury.
  2. Following that rule is also in the interest of the company, because when they don't enforce that rule, they are opening themselves to expensive fines and lawsuits.
  3. It might not have been enforced that strictly in the past, but management came to their senses and decided to enforce it more strictly, because it is the right thing to do.
2

I've been on industrial/petrochemical facilities where not having the required PPE will get you immediately escorted off site. There is no ask/comply phase.

The proper response depended on his tone. If it was "I don't understand please enlighten me", a good explanation of how it's not worth risking permanent injury or a big dent to both of your careers would have been an option. If his tone was pushback then you needed to come down harder like you did.

0

The other person will feel better about it if you

Justify why you were being lax before

"By the way, sorry if I was 'short' about the PPE. You may have noticed they were informal about it in the last work area. It is more important in the new work area, probably because there's either higher risk, or higher supervision, I don't know. But the customer has made it clear, and they pay all our paychecks. If we don't comply we could lose the contract."

It really, really helps at this point if your own conduct reflects what you are saying. Recently a supervisor needled me "where's your hi-vis vest?" He wasn't wearing one :) That was in a volunteer context where it was a "meta" in-joke (he knew he wasn't wearing a vest)... but that's an example of what not to do.

0

All in all, I think it comes down less to about how to deal with it on an IPS level, but about you being the supervisor and him being the intern. Which not only means there is a chain of command, but also a chain of responsibility.

While being the supervior doesn't mean you have to be an asshole (which is not the case, by the way), it still means that you tell him what to do, and the only posible answer is: Yes, no problem. That's even more true for something that you haven't just made up for fun after your fourth beer, but something that is laid out clearly and unmistakably in the rules that are to be followed by everybody.

So, you did get lax in a different work area, fine (or rather, not fine, but it is what it is). Now you are in this work area, and here rules are enforced. End of discussion.

Not only when it comes to security, as a senior, one is sometimes tempted to say "Yeah, I don't need this" which although it is wrong, is, oh my... I almost said "acceptable". It is not acceptable, but it is usually accepted because you're a senior. You have a lot of experience, you (hopefully) know about all risks and how to deal with them, you can do things blind-folded, you are responsible for yourself and for others, and it is expected that you can handle the situation at every moment because you know exactly what you are doing. It's a wrong assumption rivalling hybris, but it's the general baseline assumption anyway. Not so if you are an intern. The baseline assumption (which is 100% correct, too) is that you don't know. Therefore someone has to tell you. And heck, you do what you're told.

There's so many reasons why not wearing safety equipment is inacceptable, it's almost impossible to enumerate them. Among these is not only being removed from the site, or the massive amount of trouble ahead for your company (and the hiring company) if an external security audit happens, or the possibility that your intern loses an eye or an arm and sues your company, and his supervisor for negligence. Because hey, nobody told him that he could lose an eye without protective glasses in an environment with shrapnels flying around. Nobody told him that not wearing Hi-Vis in a place with heavy vehicles moving around could result in being run over. Needless to say that the insurance company will likely try to weasel out of their payment obligations, too, in such a case.

So, while serving as role model and giving an explanation is probably a good thing and helpful in obtaining compliance, all in all there's not much of a "discussion" there. You basically tell him more or less politely: "Wear your darn glasses" (possibly a second time, if the first time didn't help) and he will do it. Or else, well, pack your stuff, and bye bye bye.

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