Buying PPE: An Opportunity for Buyers to Make an Impact?

PPE - November 6, 2015 - 0 comments

man-wearing-hi vis-and-ppe-hseWithin the classical procurement portfolio analysis, buying PPE falls squarely within the “Acquisition” quadrant. Vendor choices proliferate, and it is a strong Buyers’ market. But the risk exposure from getting it wrong means that many businesses have to manage this category as if it is “Critical”, and Procurement projects can be constrained by reluctance to rock the boat. Here we assesses the opportunities that this category can present if managed effectively.

All businesses carry a duty of care to their employees, a major part of which encompasses the provision of a safe working environment, including the provision of appropriate PPE, and ensuring that it is properly stored, maintained and used. Following the mandatory risk assessments of each working environment/process, the first priority is to “engineer out” the hazards. This may be as simple as adopting wireless networks, thereby removing a spider’s web of trailing network cables, however in many instances the nature of the process may defy all reasonable measures, and this is where PPE becomes necessary.

Specify the right level of protection

Employers must not only provide PPE certified to a standard protecting against the hazard, they must also ensure that it is properly maintained and used on all occasions that employees are in that environment. So, the first requirement is to ensure that PPE of the appropriate standard is provided, and advice can be derived from vendors, the HSE, or from dedicated staff Safety Officers.

Where relevant, staff should receive training covering the need for, the use of, and (where required) the maintenance of, the PPE. Easy enough; we can all access this sort of information from our desktops these days (but always ensure that PPE selection in mortal risk applications is checked and re-checked; there are no second chances in this category). Be mindful that there is a risk of over-specifying the PPE standard, which inevitably brings with it unnecessary cost.

So, the first point to review is whether the PPE meets or exceeds the required level of protection, and bring it in line with the hazard. So, we have correctly specified the PPE to meet the assessed hazards. The next challenge is to ensure that staff correctly use the PPE provided, which may seem obvious.

However, have you ever stood for eight hours in a pair of ill-fitting safety boots, with earplugs, goggles and a half-mask filter respirator? Now consider doing this every day of your working life. PPE can be downright uncomfortable, cumbersome, and a nuisance, some products more so than others.

Involve staff in the PPE selection process

In addition to providing the appropriate storage for the PPE, and training staff in its use, it is vital that staff are involved in the selection of PPE. Failure to embrace staff input can lead to PPE remaining unused, giving rise to potential staff disciplinary issues, but also risking prosecution of you, the employer, for failing to ENSURE that PPE is used where required. It can also result in higher consumption if staff abuse, fail to maintain, fail to care for, or maintain PPE they feel is inappropriate for their needs.

Most employers establish a forum within their H&S committee to deal with PPE selection. Factors considered comprise:-

  • Compliance with (but not exceeding) the required standard
  • Corporate identity and branding
  • Cost
  • Comfort
  • Ease of Use
  • Styling

Most businesses recognise the need to achieve user acceptance (see the final three points), and accordingly ensure strong workforce representation. But how many ensure the appropriate Procurement department representation? Re-specifying PPE can involve trials and be a lengthy process, therefore consideration of all criteria at the formative stages is essential. With a permanent presence on the committee the PPE Buyer can ensure that cost considerations are tabled and properly considered.

Of growing importance within user acceptance is styling. It is not long ago that all footwear resembled that worn by The Flowerpot Men, all eyewear looked like it was selected by the 1960 Nerd Convention, and the Donkey Jacket was the primary garment for weather protection. Things have changed…… Safety trainers (the footwear variety) abound, eyewear mimics that seen on the ski slopes or in the F1 pit lane, and workwear now follows the high street fashion seasons.

Here, then, are some of the challenge associated with sourcing and contracting for the PPE that will protect your staff, and your corporate reputation. But how do you ensure that meeting them does not destroy your budgets and allow costs to spiral out of control?

How to select house-approved PPE

Resist any arguments that styling costs. The brand owner must understand that securing user acceptance is vital, and styling is the brand owner’s entry fee to get to the start line. Without it the products will not even be considered. Avoid becoming “slaves to the brand”. Proprietary brands are usually costly compared with distributors own label products (which are usually of equivalent or better quality).

Hand protection, Footwear, and Workwear are prime candidates for “own label”, but Hearing, Eye, Head and Respiratory protection equipment can offer similar options to consider. Distributors will often position own label list pricing just below proprietary brands, but with a shorter supply chain their costs are usually significantly lower, offering greater scope for lower selling prices. If no alternative exists to proprietary brands, then distributors’ scope for discounting is limited.

However, if the brand proprietor wishes to gain new business or defend current business then they will consider offering special pricing for your business via the distributor. This is known as price support, and allows the brand owner to gain/retain business, whilst allowing a low but viable margin for the distributor. In these circumstances it is necessary for the brand proprietor to feel an element of threat from a competitor, so ensure you tee things up to ensure this threat (real or staged) is detected.

How to secure the best deal on your PPE

If you have succeeded in managing your PPE selection to a position of greatest flexibility, then you are well on your way to re-positioning your category into the “Acquisition” quadrant. You can now apply your usual range of procurement expertise and skills to secure the best deal. Here are some ideas to consider.

  • Ensure your usage data is up to date, accurate and complete.
  • Tender your business regularly.
  • Know your markets – for each brand / distributor / product. This is invaluable when seeking products with greatest scope for price reduction.
  • Many brand owners offer a rebate scheme to distributors based upon turnover, and distributors endeavour to ring fence this rebate, however if they want your business they will pass some or all of this rebate on to you.
  • If you have a shopping basket of simple generic products and have no need for innovation, support, or any other added value services, then search for a distributor with low overheads. They will be able to offer lower prices whilst still making a viable margin.
  • If you have a need for added value services, then seek to have these included at no or reduced cost. This might cover advice, surveys, training, on-site staff issue, garment and other product decoration (logos, names, roles etc.), compressed air quality testing/maintenance, or other services.
  • Contract for an agreed term/volume, with specified price controls, delivery performance, and the appropriate measurement, reporting and review. Ensure that you have an appropriate exit if the vendor fails to perform as contracted (usually after suitable allowance for remedying the failure).

And one final consideration. The brand thieves have moved in on PPE, and dodgy versions are spreading. Beware the cheap knock-off products that simply do not meet standards. Do hi-vis items reflect in the dark? Do safety boots really have toecaps/midsoles? Is there actually any Kevlar in those cut-resistant gloves? Is that helmet truly made from ABS? This is increasingly dangerous territory, so if in doubt check thoroughly and be prepared to walk away. Note that reputable distributors would not knowingly offer such products, however such things have happened in the past (eg re-labelled cut-resistant gloves with only minimal Kevlar content).

So, if you have not already done it, step confidently forward to lift the lid on this “nuisance” category; there are notable rewards for those who get it right.

Mike Smart

Mike Smart of Smart Business (Yorkshire) Ltd held a variety of positions with a leading UK PPE distributor, handling both Traded PPE and Indirect Procurement.

If you would like to learn more, or are seeking Procurement advice, consultancy, support, or project work, in the PPE arena, Third Party Logistics, Carriers, Pharmaceuticals, Indirects or General Procurement then contact Mike directly on 01964 543128 or view Mike’s LinkedIn profile.

Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0

(Image of hearing protection by kind permission of Seton UK)


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