In a survey distributed by Kimberly-Clark Professional at the National Safety Council Congress in November 2006, 85 percent of the safety professionals responding had observed people in their organizations failing to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when they should have been. Nearly half said that had happened on numerous occasions, while 38 percent described these occurrences as infrequent.

In addition, 66 percent of the safety professionals said compliance with requirements for personal protective equipment was an important issue in their organizations.

Nearly one third of the respondents said the main reason for noncompliance was that there was a feeling of invulnerability, as in: "An accident won't happen to me." Many welders are a combination of shop-smart and fatalist

— they feel that they're able to determine if they're working safely or not, and if they do have an accident, it's because welding is a dangerous job.

Stock and supplies
Safety equipment is a tough sell to such customers, and it is not unusual to find personal protective gear in the back of a general supply catalog. It is important to note, however, that several safety-related issues have been raised over the last few years, and include the class-action lawsuit over fumes from welding rods and new OSHA standards for fumes of hexavalent chromium, a by-product, amongst other things, of welding stainless steel.

As a result, there are safety devices on the market today that would not have been seen a decade ago. One example is the self-contained breathing systems that are expressly designed for welding, such as the 3M Speedglas and Adflo units (www.speedglas.com). Other companies have introduced portable fume removal systems that are about the size of a large rolling tool cabinet, which can be moved close to a welder's workstation.

A complaint that many people have about personal protective equipment has to do with poor fit. Most breathing masks have adjustment straps to ensure a tight fit, but the mask does not necessarily fit all face types that you might find in a welding shop. While a supply house is not set up to be a boutique in a shopping mall, distributors can support their customers by helping them find the gear that fits them correctly. If you can't stock every size and make of an item, you might keep several samples of alternate units that can be special-ordered with a quick phone call.

Raising safety awareness
Consider putting OSHA safety standards, or welding safety articles from Penton's Welding magazine, out on the sales counter.

Michael McCourt, owner and manager of Gas Products & Service, Inc. in Orlando, Fla. (www.gasproductsorlando.com), said that it is the job of his sales staff to be knowledgeable about processes and equipment, and to use that knowledge to educate their customers. MSDS sheets are available both in the store, and online at the company's website. If there is an important development in safety standards that affects welders and weld shops, Gas Products & Service, Inc.'s modest team will make certain their customers are aware of these changes.

"Our job is to bring viable solutions to the customer's attention and let them make the decision on what level of exposure is acceptable," said McCourt. A trust developed with the customer over a long-term relationship makes your knowledge of their shop a valuable tool in suggesting the right solution for their budget and environment. "We have an excellent relationship with Lincoln Electric and depend on their engineering dept. to help us in large manufacturers. We are fortunate to have Rick Harrell, district rep from Lincoln Electric, locally available. He has been a great help in keeping us informed of the changes."

McCourt also notes that most customers have safety inspections in house and may already know about the potential hazards in a weld shop. "We are sure the customers appreciate our concern for their well-being and safety, said McCourt. "Personal protective gear may not be the primary reason the customer comes to Gas Products & Service, Inc. yet it can be an avenue toward keeping their patronage for many more years."