Among the many words and phrases that have become part of everyday speech these past weeks is PPE – Personal Protective Equipment. Of course anyone who worked in health and safety was already well-acquainted with the term, but now it’s all over the news, it’s in your social media posts and you talk about it at the dinner table. People are sewing PPE at home and companies that used to make car parts, toys or even goalie pads have retooled to manufacture masks, shields, and gowns for health care workers.

In the traditional hierarchy of controls, PPE is considered the last line of defence. The preferred ways to deal with a hazard are through elimination, substitution, engineering or administrative controls.

But here we all are, as a society, obsessed with the last line of defence.

This week is National Nursing Week – how appropriate that this week to acknowledge and thank the nursing profession falls in the middle of the greatest health crisis in a century.

My son dressed for work in the ER
One of my sons works as a registered nurse in the emergency room of a hospital in Ottawa. In the past, when I thought about the risks of his job, my mind went to strains and sprains which we know are common in health care, and the sorts of ER violence you read about, that nurses and other health system workers are exposed to. Infectious disease didn’t really enter my picture, but it sure has now.

As parents – or simply as family – you never stop worrying about your loved ones. These days, we’ve all piled additional items onto our worry lists: older parents and in-laws, economic concerns, and just general fear of the impact of this disease.

My son tells me there’s rationing of PPE, but the needed supplies are still there. And while his ER has become steadily busier over the weeks, his hospital at least has not seen the overwhelming surge of COVID cases that was anticipated in the worst-case scenarios.

I continue to worry, but at the same time, I’m so appreciative of the work our governments and our population has done to control the spread of the disease. That has transformed what could have been an out-of-control disaster into a situation – a hazard – that can be managed, at least to a point. And I’m grateful to all the individuals and businesses who’ve jumped in to supply PPE – either making the items nurses like my son wear every day, or providing alternatives for others so that medical-grade PPE continues to be available for those who need it the most.

PPE may be the last line of defence, but in this world it remains a crucial ingredient for the safety of my son and all the others working hard to keep us all healthy.

Susan Haldane