It’s difficult to overstate the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE). In 2019, the manufacturing industry accounted for 15% of all nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the private sector, resulting in 32,470 days away from work. While PPE is only one factor in this multifaceted issue, it’s a crucial one.
Better-designed PPE can prevent more injuries, encourage compliance and provide insight into injury trends. As emphasis on workplace safety continues to rise, PPE innovation has accelerated to provide these benefits.
These eight developments paint a promising picture of the future of PPE tech.
1. Health Status Sensors
The introduction of the internet of things (IoT) to PPE is one of the most impactful safety trends in recent history. Perhaps the most widely publicized application of these technologies to PPE is employee health sensors. Helmets, vests and other items with connected sensors can monitor workers’ physiology to predict and prevent injuries.
For example, connected wristbands similar to FitBits can watch employees’ heart rate and perspiration. When they detect that these signals are nearing concerning levels, they can then alert the worker and their manager. The employee can then break or focus on less strenuous work for a while to avoid overexertion.
More advanced sensors may even be able to detect and correct workers’ posture. These readings would help prevent common injuries like overextension that can lead to musculoskeletal disorders.
2. PPE Compliance Sensors
Just as IoT sensors can monitor workers’ physiology, they can detect if they’re not wearing PPE correctly. OSHA requires hard hats to fit correctly, as they become less effective if they’re too tight or loose. Sensors within the hard hat can recognize a poor fit or other non-compliance with how a worker is wearing it and alert them.
Many cases of non-compliance may come from a misunderstanding or failure to realize a hazard. Consequently, these alerts from built-in sensors can help prevent injuries by bringing attention to factors workers might have overlooked. Alternatively, they could alert managers, providing data about who is following safety procedures and who isn’t.
Traditionally, quantifying regulatory compliance can be challenging without planned checks or audits. IoT sensors make it easier by providing real-time data.
3. Lightweight, Comfortable Respirators
One of the most significant influencing factors behind today’s PPE trends is the COVID-19 pandemic. Respirators have been essential in many industrial processes for years, and the virus has revealed where many fall short. In response to COVID-19, many PPE producers are no emphasizing lighter, more comfortable designs.
When employees have to wear respiratory protection for hours at a time, weight and comfort are crucial considerations. Heavy respirators may slide down workers’ faces, breaking the seal around their nose and mouth. Similarly, if these are uncomfortable, employees may not wear them when they should.
New strap designs can distribute weight more evenly, preventing slippage and improving comfort. Novel materials, especially 3D printing filaments, can make respirators far lighter, encouraging compliance and protecting their seal.
4. Employee Tracking Solutions
Another workplace safety issue that the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized is monitoring workers’ location. In many facilities, employees have limited visibility, which made social distancing difficult during the pandemic. In response, many companies turned to IoT location-tracking solutions, which have safety implications far beyond disease prevention.
Struck-by and caught-in-between incidents are two of the four leading causes of workplace fatalities. Wearable proximity sensors can help mitigate both by increasing employees’ awareness of what’s around them. These wearables can alert them when a vehicle, another worker or other potential hazard is near, inciting caution.
Over time, data from these connected pieces of PPE can reveal where the most accidents occur. Managers can then see if they need to restructure workflows to improve safety.
5. Augmented Reality Glasses
One of the newest trends in wearable technology for workplace safety is augmented reality (AR) glasses. These wearables, which project digital images over workers’ real-world field of view, often market themselves as a productivity tool, but they can also improve safety. In addition to shielding employees’ eyes, these glasses can provide valuable safety information.
Many workers need to check documents or data as they work, but holding a tablet in their hands can be hazardous. AR glasses provide a hands-free solution, letting workers see what they need while using both of their hands to work.
This hands-free view of critical information is particularly helpful for training. Some companies have found that AR glasses reduce training time by 50%, equipping employees with crucial safety knowledge faster. Similarly, they can display warnings and reminders as employees work, helping them remember best practices.
6. Cooling PPE
As workers equip themselves with more PPE, overheating becomes a more prominent concern. Helmets, vests, gloves and layers of other protective clothing can trap heat, and many industrial processes already involve hot environments. As these concerns have grown in the past few years, cooling PPE has started to grow in response.
PPE that allows for more natural airflow can help but is of limited use. More effective options include personal air-conditioning systems. For example, tubes pumping compressed air throughout a vest can keep workers 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the surrounding environment.
7. Biodegradable Materials
Many companies use disposable gloves, respirators and other pieces of PPE. While these are often affordable and convenient, they’re starting to fall out of fashion as environmental concerns rise. Consequently, more PPE producers have started using biodegradable materials in their products.
While biodegradable PPE doesn’t necessarily improve safety, it does bring several benefits to companies. First, they reduce their environmental footprint, which is increasingly crucial as sustainability concerns grow. This improved sustainability can also be a helpful marketing tool, as modern consumers and business partners are more likely to prefer sustainable companies.
Transitioning to biodegradable PPE can also reduce waste-related expenses, as they cost less to dispose of. Eco-conscious employees may also prefer these options, encouraging compliance with safety standards.
8. Aesthetically Pleasing PPE
Aesthetics typically aren’t a concern with safety equipment. Recently, though, PPE manufacturers have realized that the way a piece of equipment looks can affect whether or not employees wear it. Consequently, there’s a growing trend of making PPE both safe and aesthetically pleasing.
Typically, this movement involves making items like hard hats and eyewear streamlined and tighter-fitting. Minimizing bulk can also make PPE less awkward, improving workers’ performance in some areas. As new materials deliver more strength with less size, making stylish yet safe PPE is becoming easier.
PPE Innovation Can Save Lives
Many conversations about innovation in industrial work focus on processes and machines, but PPE advancement is just as impactful. As these trends continue and PPE becomes more advanced, we’ll see better safety across a spectrum of industries. As long as there are workplace injuries, there’s room to improve safety, and these PPE developments are pushing us toward that goal.