Hardhats, steel-toed boots, safety glasses, and earplugs – they've been around for decades, but are they the same as they've always been?
My father shared a story with me recently. He was working in the Alberta oilfield in the 70s. One of the foremen had taken his old-school aluminum hardhat and used a hammer to pound it out into the shape of a cowboy hat. He brimmed with pride wearing it on the rig – his personal stamp on the required gear.
There were hardhats then and there are hardhats now, but I'm not so sure that would fly on a work site in 2019.
The categories may have largely stayed the same, but innovation in PPE keeps taking microscopic steps forward. The very molecules of the materials that make up our PPE are being modified and manipulated to make materials that are better, stronger, lighter, and more resistant than the ones Mother Nature has conceived.
Make no mistake, demand is driving innovation in this sphere. The PPE market raked in nearly 48 billion globally in 2018. That's no small potatoes. There are brilliant minds and a lot of dollars behind innovations in PPE, but what are they working on?
Higher Performance Materials
The focus is developing better material performance under certain circumstances.
Materials like Nomex have a good performance in arc thermal performance value (ATPV) and energy break open threshold (EBT) tests, which are conducted according to the ASTM F1959/F1959M – 14 standard test method.
Nitrile and Butyl have high ratings in chemical penetration and permeation testing (ASTM F903 and F739 standards, respectively), but the chemicals encountered on site will inform the choice. Ammonia can degrade Butyl, so despite it being robust in many ways it may be a poor choice at a nitrogen plant or while using industrial cleaning products.
The point is to show that each component of every PPE garment is scrutinized and tested carefully with a focus on performance. “How well does it work?” is the principal consideration.
Comfort, Style, and Aesthetics
Imagine asking a worker why they like the PPE they chose and they respond “These gloves use acrylonitrile butadiene rubber and woven poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, they have an ASTM F1790 L3 cut rating and a >480 minute normalized F739 breakthrough time, which I like.”
That type of response is highly unlikely. Those technical specifics are outside the scope of the majority of worker's interest and responsibility. But they do know what they like, and it has to look and feel good.
There's a trend toward focusing on comfort and style because end users have given feedback that those are priorities. Manufacturers want to better align the PPE they produce with the clothes workers might wear off the job. The idea is to get better buy-in at work, with the obvious benefit being that it won't be removed on site. Ideally, if gear is comfortable enough, a worker won't really think of it at all.
It's becoming more common to see PPE designs like Nomex pants designed to looks like regular bluejeans, Nomex hoodies, and jackets with leather adornments or a biker/hunter/woodsman vibe to their design. The same trend can be seen in making eye protection safe but stylish.
Multifunctional materials are being developed with the aim of providing resistance to multiple hazards. But chemistry doesn't give anything up for free. Better resistance to heat could result in poor abrasion resistance or reactivity to chemicals. Every material has strengths and weaknesses. The answer tends to be in combining materials like Nitrile, Nomex, and Kevlar in creative ways to solve a combination of problems, like the Nirtrile and Kevlar cut- and chemical-resistant grip gloves that are commonplace on sites today.
If the discussion of incremental improvement of PPE chemistry is bit mundane, it's because when safety is at stake, progress moves slowly – as it should. Radical changes are scrutinized carefully before being adopted to the status quo to make sure no potential hazards are missed. The safety industry doesn't want to hail some miracle technology until the risks and benefits have been painstakingly considered and demonstrated. That said, there are a few promising candidate technologies up and coming.
Connectivity could become the next gold rush in PPE innovation. We've yet to see it come into widespread use but ideas and technologies are already peppered throughout every trade show and conference. We've seen the power of some now-common technologies in everyday use in our smartphones and the Internet of Things (IoT). The guard is down and it's just a matter of time until practicality meets innovation.
(Learn more about Using Wearable Tech to Enhance Workplace Safety.)
Imagine the ability to centrally monitor every worker's location and vital status, or have a way to monitor and communicate atmosphere testing in real time, or detect falls and impacts. This will revolutionize the way safety is done on sites.
For now, the outdated but tried-and-true methods still have a place, but I think it's just a matter of time. Eventually, things like wearable tech find the right application in PPE, and their potential can no longer be ignored by industry.
In the meantime, numerous companies are pitching an endless stream of dubious “smart” PPE that is unlikely to be the breakthrough that takes wearable tech mainstream.
Personally, I'm not going to be first in line for a hardhat that has to be USB charged in order to provide some benefit I don't want in the first place. Nevertheless, someone out there is probably pitching it.
This is where safety and technology have to interface to answer the question: "what is the problem that actually needs solving?" In a way, we're spoiled for choice – we have numerous technologies with amazing potential applications, it's just a matter of figuring out which ones offer a real benefit and which ones are just bells and whistles.
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