Personal protective equipment, or PPE, has been an official staple of workforces for over a century. Today, PPE is a must for any business’ safe practices when it comes to its employees; however, as with many staples of the working world, there is still room for improvement. Addressing everything from modern considerations to age-old workplace concerns, advancements in PPE are accelerating to meet the needs of today’s workers.
A growing topic in modern PPE use and design is ensuring that equipment matches the physical attributes of a diversifying workforce.
Robin Skillings, writing for OHS Canada magazine, purports that Canada is in the middle of a serious skilled trades shortage, a sentiment echoed by many employers and industry leaders today across a breadth of environments and locations. Exacerbating the issue, more than 250,000 Canadians are expected to enter retirement soon. These trends mean that more gender diversity will be seen in previously male-dominated industries and these recruits will be seen as assets while the old guard exits workplaces.
A report for REMI Network, a self-described “news and information source servicing the real estate management industry,” outlines that business sectors historically dominated by men, such as construction and other such trades, are seeing an increase in gender diversity. “Around 170,000 females, twenty-five percent of those in the industry, are employed in hands-on roles [in these sectors],” the report states. It notes that the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) fears that women entering these industries may find their PPE to be either uncomfortable or ill-fitting, which will mean that it cannot protect them to the extent that it should.
Skillings’ piece cites a 2016 study for the American Journal of Industrial Medicine which, much like the REMI Network report, found that “a majority of female construction workers reported fit problems with many types of PPE including gloves, harnesses, safety vests, and work boots.”
Steps are being taken by PPE outfitters to consider these factors when designing workplace equipment. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) blog post puts forth that truly equitable PPE “considers workers’ gender, race, age, shape, and size,” as well as factors like disability, occupational settings, and more.
In an article for occupational safety and health magazine EHS Today, Sayanti Basu reports that proper fit and comfort will ensure PPE is more widely adopted in trades and workplaces. “Incorporating flexible materials into mask production such as thermoplastic elastomers creates a final product that is soft to the touch and can stretch to fit different people.” This in turn minimizes discomfort. Basu also states that lightweight material can also aid in building higher filtration in breathing masks so that workers in trades where this protection is necessary can mitigate the build-up of carcinogens and heat in the material. Improvements like these go hand in hand with the notion that equitable PPE considers the bodies of all workers.
As part of its mandate to conduct research and recommend measures to prevent work-related injury and illness, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looks at anthropometry, the study of the human body’s measurements and proportions, and how it relates to PPE. “It is important that anthropometry databases and other information used to develop PPE are based on measurements that are representative of current working populations,” the CDC blog post writes. Research by NIOSH has helped equipment manufacturers design PPE to provide better fit and comfort to today’s workforce.
NIOSH even goes a step further by holding competitions like ‘The NIOSH Protective Clothing Challenge,’ which takes submissions from workers and organizations industry-wide on solutions that “consider the broad spectrum of U.S. workers in relation to factors that may influence fit such as body size and shape, gender, race, ethnicity, religious or cultural practices, or specific work tasks.” For example, the 2022 competition yielded a top submission that created a self-conforming PPE gown with a contamination indicator. The gown is designed to fit a broad range of body types.
Progress extends beyond making equipment more comfortable or person-appropriate; in fact, future advancements will look to bring even more interesting and impressive improvements to what we currently think of as PPE. In a piece for Build Magazine, Evelyn Long highlights new moves in the field like investments in exosuits, wearable robotics that aim to prevent on-site injury to workers’ bodies by enhancing physical capabilities. Now in the early stages of adoption, exosuits reduce physical exertion significantly, supporting workers’ arms, shoulders, legs, and backs and allowing them to work under less physical strain and with potentially increased ability in lifting, weight management, and more.
Some exosuit technologies even sport built-in sensors that warn a user of an increased heart rate, temperature changes, machine overheating, and more. These come in the form of smart technology helmets, augmented reality (AR) glasses, or footwear with GPS technology.
Martin Banks for technology media site TechAeris reports that these are connected by the Internet of Things, which is increasingly becoming part of the modern workplace. IoT connectivity in PPE could allow for real-time updating of a worker’s condition and state of the equipment, allowing for dynamic problem-solving and avoidance of large-scale issues.
As exciting as these improvements in PPE technology are, Evelyn Long says that, while this segment of the industry is growing, this kind of equipment is expensive, especially in mass quantities and considering the economic fluctuations post-pandemic. Other innovations are not technologically advanced or expensive but face the issue of sustainability.
In his writing for TechAeris, Martin Banks says that disposable PPE is becoming common in modern companies. “While these are often affordable and convenient, they’re starting to fall out of fashion as environmental concerns rise.” This has led to a rise in biodegradable PPE, equipment made from material that can naturally break down as opposed to that made of plastic. The use of biodegradable materials allows companies to reduce their environmental footprint which can, in turn, be used as a marketing tool, as more consumers demand environmentally friendly solutions. These also have lower disposal costs. New PPE does not always have to do with technological leaps as much as the smarter use of available and recommended materials.
Sustainability, equity, and reducing the physical tolls on workers are issues that are as important to employees and labourers as they are for the creators of the PPE technology that looks to support them. As many countries seek to counter an ongoing labour shortage, focusing on how to best accommodate workers and keep them safe can be a way to tackle the problem. Just as workplace demographics are evolving, so too is public understanding of how cleanliness, greener initiatives, and comfort can affect a workplace. PPE must adapt along with it so that the challenges of today can lead to the better workplaces of tomorrow.