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PPE vs. Engineering Controls: What's the difference and why does it matter?

What counts as PPE?

Measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 are expected to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. The coronavirus outbreak has caused a surge of interest in PPE this year, evident in the search term’s spike on Google at the end of March. The term PPE is widely used to refer to any steps taken to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection, but what officially counts as PPE, and what terminology describes the other safety measures?

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) constitutes physical safeguards for the individual, mainly through clothing, such as facemasks, gloves, N95 respirators, eye protection, isolation gowns, and ventilators. According to the CDC, non-medical fabric masks are not officially considered PPE, so their use is not recommended for healthcare workers. They are, however, the recommended option for the general public so that medical-grade masks can be reserved to protect healthcare workers, who regularly come into close contact with ill patients.

Other protections typically fall into the category of Administrative Controls, which change people’s behavior as with frequent handwashing, or Engineering Controls, which aim to physically isolate people from the hazard.

What safety measures are most effective?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health regularly discusses PPE to promote workplace health and safety. Below is a graphic they’ve provided showing the hierarchy of controls in promoting workplace safety.

Since we cannot currently eliminate the threat of COVID-19 and replacing the hazard isn’t applicable, we need to focus on the other three prevention measures. Note that PPE, while important, is the least effective measure. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon the use of masks or gloves; instead, we should also emphasize the importance of administrative and engineering controls.

Many schools, businesses, and other organizations are already prepared to implement Administrative Controls by cleaning their spaces more frequently and thoroughly, as well as keeping a greater distance between people.

Engineering controls, such as plastic partitions and other methods of physical isolation, are considered the most effective of the three available controls. Yet they are receiving significantly less attention in the case of COVID-19.

How to implement Engineering Controls

What steps can we take to isolate people from the hazard of coronavirus in schools and workplaces? One option is plastic partitions, which have been suggested by the CDC as well as the Wall Street Journal.

Partitions, like masks, are intended to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets that might contain the virus. But unlike masks, partitions are fixed, semi-permanent structures that don’t rely on individual application. A cashier who stands behind a plastic partition is already less likely to catch COVID-19 from a customer, whether that customer wears a mask or not.

Let Us Help

At KTM Solutions, we’re committed to maintaining as safe an environment as possible in our own offices and helping you maintain social distance and implement prevention strategies in your space. Contact us about your partition needs and let us develop a custom solution!



KTM is a team of professional engineers that partners with manufacturing companies to overcome challenges and deliver the custom design solution and the expertise you need for your project.

Our Products & Services

KTM utilizes a staff of registered mechanical engineers (PE) that are qualified in the design and analysis of advanced machines, fixtures, lifting systems, and mechanical structures. We design and analyze for sufficient strength, optimal mechanical performance, and safety in accordance with industry standards and governmental regulations.

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