“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”  — John B. Finch

I have mixed feelings about motorcycle helmets and mandatory helmet laws.

As a safety professional, I know that they reduce the likelihood of head injuries and want to see motorcyclists wearing them. As a student of psychology and economics, I recognize that there is a “Law of Conservation of Recklessness”, which is to say that when someone is compelled to do something to make themselves safer, they tend to compensate by being more reckless in some other area.

What cinches it for me though, is the realization that a motorcycle helmet doesn’t just benefit the rider wearing it. We all benefit when a motorcyclist wears a helmet, and we all pay when a motorcyclist chooses not to wear a helmet and is then involved in a wreck.

That is how it is for all PPE.


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the general public has become a lot more familiar with the term “PPE,” although only in a very narrow sense. The general public would describe PPE – personal protective equipment – as the masks, gloves, face shields, and gowns that medical professionals and others wear to protect themselves from becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. They would miss the bigger picture that PPE is any item that is worn to create a barrier between the wearer and a hazard.

So, it’s not just the gear a medical professional wears as a barrier against infectious diseases.  It’s the hardhat, gloves, and steel-toed boots that a construction worker wears to protect against hazards at a construction site. It’s the face shield, goggles, and acid suit that a chemical worker wears to unload a truck hauling sulfuric acid. It’s the flame-retardant coveralls that a refinery worker wears when opening the hatch of a vessel containing hydrocarbons. And yes, it’s the helmet and leathers that a motorcyclist wears.

“Cool Wind in My Hair”

In Hotel California, The Eagles sing about being “on a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair.” It’s a romantic image. So, I get it: you don’t get cool wind in your hair as you are riding your bike down a dark desert highway if you are wearing a helmet.

All PPE poses a burden.

Any discussion of PPE, especially compulsory PPE, needs to acknowledge the burden that PPE poses.  Unfortunately, the burden is a direct result of the very attributes that provide the protection. Motorcycle helmets must be strong enough to withstand impact and protect the whole head, which means they are hot and heavy, and limit peripheral vision. Acid suits must prevent the infiltration of acid liquid and acidic vapors, which means that they are also impermeable to sweat—they don’t breathe. Steel-toed boots have a protective cup over the toes that must be strong enough to withstand impact and the shoes themselves must be sturdy enough to hold that cup in place. Steel-toed boots will never be as comfortable as flip-flops.

In the days of COVID-19, the ubiquitous face masks people around the world are wearing also pose a burden. The very qualities that allow them to keep viruses from passing through also make it harder to breath. Because they are a barrier to respiration, they must cover the nose and mouth, which makes talking, eating, and drinking more difficult. And wearing them is less comfortable than not wearing them. (But admit it—naked is always more comfortable than wearing something. Yet, somehow, we manage to get dressed every day before we go out.)

It’s Not Just Personal

This fact—that PPE poses a burden on its wearer—prompts many to ask, “If it poses a burden on me to wear this protective equipment, shouldn’t I be able to decide if the benefit is worth the burden? Shouldn’t I be free to choose what PPE I will or won’t wear, based on my own feelings about the advantages and disadvantages?”

To them, I would say, “If your choices only affected you, then I completely agree. The choice should be yours to make. But when your choices affect others, then everyone affected should have input into the choice.” So, for PPE in the workplace, society has decided that the responsibility for safety in the workplace falls primarily to the employer. In enforcing society’s decision, OSHA requires for employers to be responsible for deciding what PPE an employee should wear and then seeing to it that they do wear it.

As for motorcycle helmets, I come down in favor of mandatory helmet laws. Many years ago, I knew a social worker whose responsibilities consisted of working with disabled people in the care of the state. Many of those disabled suffered from brain injuries, and many of those brain injuries were the result of motorcycle wrecks where they weren’t wearing helmets. They made the choice, but we, as taxpayers, paid the cost.

It’s Not Just Protection

What many people miss is that PPE doesn’t just create a barrier between the wearer and hazard. When the wearer is the hazard, PPE creates a barrier between the wearer and whatever needs to be protected from the wearer.

When a worker in a semiconductor plant dons a clean room suit – a “bunny suit” – before entering their workplace, it is not to protect themselves from the process for manufacturing microchips.  It is to protect the microchip manufacturing process from them; from the dirt and debris that their bodies are constantly shedding and that would kill the microscopic circuitry of a chip.

When a surgeon scrubs their hands, puts on surgical gloves and a surgical mask before entering the surgical theater, they are not doing it to protect themselves from being infected by the patient. They are doing to prevent infecting the patient. Any surgeon that declared, “I don’t need all this PPE. I’m not worried about getting infected and it’s my choice,” would have their license to practice medicine revoked.

During a pandemic caused by a respiratory disease, when someone wears a mask, it is to prevent giving the disease to others. Sure, it also provides a modicum of personal protection, but its primary purpose is to prevent the spread of the virus that causes the disease, especially if the disease is asymptomatic. So, when someone says, “I don’t need all this PPE. I’m not worried about getting infected and it’s my choice,” they are selfishly imposing the cost of their choice on others.

Don’t Be Seduced

We are proud of our freedoms and defend them fiercely. But as John Finch famously said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Claims of “rights” and “freedoms” have been tossed about a lot lately in regard to wearing masks for COVID-19. We have even heard some of those same arguments applied to PPE worn in the workplace.

If it is your responsibility to determine the PPE that is required, or to enforce those decisions, do it. You will not only be protecting the wearer, but those around them and those that depend on them. Don’t be seduced by claims of “rights” and “freedoms”, no matter how sophisticated they have become. Remember, it’s not personal.


  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.