Last reviewed 22 August 2016

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is generally designed to work when all other risk mitigation measures have failed. However, in the not-so-distant future PPE could be part of the frontline defence against physical hazards as digital technology kicks in, explains Jon Herbert.

Imagine clothing that switches off dangerous rotating, cutting or pressing equipment before you get too close. Or wearables that let you know if heat sources and emissions are becoming unsafe.

The concept of everyday smart PPE may still be some way down the line but it is approaching quickly.

Meanwhile, more conventional PPE remains a key workplace fundamental that is too easily taken for granted. One size does not fit all. Being issued with the right kit for the right working environment is essential. Fortunately, progress is also being made with accountable systems that not only match correctly-sized equipment to individual employees and the specific job in hand but can also prove that it was issued and returned.

The first priority of modern health and safety culture is the removal of risks. With the possible exception of ad hoc inspections or maintenance tasks where risk exposures may be higher, the onus is on employers, with employee co-operation, to eliminate workplace hazards without depending on PPE. These include fire, carbon monoxide (CO) inhalation, dangers associated with compressed gases, chemical vapours and contact with hazardous substances that can enter the bloodstream, plus the proximity of unsafe electrical apparatus.

Regulations demand that PPE should always be available and used if it is necessary. However, it should still be seen as a last resort and a means of mitigating any residual risks that a strict hierarchy of control measures may have failed to contain.

Even so, there are gaps in the correct use of PPE. Staff can easily become blasé about using the right gear all the time every time. Familiarity often leads to complacency and an “it won’t happen to me” mentality. A common fault is an inadequate understanding of risks reinforced by assumptions about actual threats and low levels of awareness over appropriate PPE products.

PPE training can be an important bridge here.

In the heat of the moment

Heat and burns are obvious fire risks. However, CO inhalation is a silent killer. When entering the fine alveoli of the lungs, CO bonds with haemoglobin before the oxygen can. The result is hypoxia (oxygen deficiency), which can kill in four minutes. Mild exposures can take months to break down in the bloodstream.

Modern fire detection systems are often linked to CO warnings given within seconds. Wearable CO warning devices are even more promising.

PPE responses to common fire dangers include the use of breathing systems, plus textiles resistant to heat, chemicals and even electrical arc hazards.

Compressed gases present different fire threats, depending on their type and nature. Dissolved gases, such as acetylene, pose particular risks. Some processes are exothermic, releasing heat as they progress, which can lead to explosions. Blowout disks and pressure valves are a safeguard but time and rust can jeopardise their reliability.

Chemicals used in industry can be toxic, corrosive, harmful, or classed as irritants. The route to safety involves understanding the properties of the chemicals in question, plus how they enter or affect the body.

Inhaled chemicals can not only damage lungs but also impact on other organs through the bloodstream causing cancers and injuries to the central nervous system.

Countermeasures may include ending risky processes and installing extraction systems. The next step might be to consider job rotation, add signage or prohibit human access completely.

The final safeguard is often PPE.

The Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 considers the PPE duties of employers and employees. It also defines duties for PPE manufacturers. Responsibility is shared and co-operation is required.

A useful guiding principle for anyone still in doubt over the effectiveness of PPE is that the price of providing well-selected equipment is far lower than the potential costs of ill health or injury due to its absence, including high legal fees and raised insurance premiums.

Cost shortcuts around, for example, the use of high-quality disposable facemasks can be mere pence when compared to the true cost of mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure.

While this is bread and butter to a majority of companies, important developments are on the horizon.

Smart and tailored

Smart PPE and new accountable issuing and record-keeping systems are two key developments.

Smart PPE and smart personal protective systems (PPS) are being introduced but face a number of statutory and administrative challenges.

PPE and PPS can include communication and location-finding technology, sensors that detect, record and transmit the wearer’s body function (heart and breathing rates, temperature, perspiration rate, etc) together with environmental conditions (heat, emissions, etc).

More advanced sensors will have the potential to act as an emergency stop when laser beams, heat-based (welding) or moving (chainsaw) hazards are detected.

Cooling and heating functions can be incorporated. To enhance visibility, light-emitting materials may also be included in textiles.

Key areas for smart PPE and PPS have been identified in hearing, head and respiratory protection, plus major opportunities in the fire, safety, emergency medical services (EMS), mining, automotive, oil and gas and manufacturing sectors.

Current research includes studies into how PPE technology can improve productivity, increase safety and cut costs through better accident prevention.

The Internet of Things (IoT), big data and cloud computing will have an increasing impact on incentives for manufacturers to invest in smart PPE/PPS and future market opportunities.

Complexities arise when digital communications require absolutely safe, unhackable wireless links to both external equipment and responsible team members (safety managers or fire teams), with the dual aim of safeguarding personal information integrity and uncompromised activity.

Unfortunately, experience indicates that when safety data is fed back to wearers, they tend to either concentrate on it to the exclusion of real physical factors around them, or ignore it completely.

Currently, there is no standard method for testing new systems. This can reduce wearer or employer confidence. Legislation changes may be needed too as smart-PPE and PPS move beyond the bounds of existing regulations to include the Radio Equipment Directive and Directive on Electromagnetic Compatibility. Harmonisation is a long-term aim but many different bodies and authorities are involved.

Another commercial issue is proving the ROI (return on investment) involved with innovative smart products.

Right PPE, right fit, right time

Another development based on digital technology is the issuing of correct PPE/PPS items at the right time every time to the right staff members, while also eliminating the arbitrary equipment losses that firms frequently suffer.

In many organisations, kit is issued from stores on a person-to-person basis. The result can be mis-issued equipment due to human error or sizing problems, plus poor accountability and monitoring.

One alternative is a vending machine based approach that automatically matches equipment with tasks and responsibilities and tracks lost or “forgotten” items.

By linking equipment issue to a personal swipe card or key-fob, companies can use the new technology not only to ensure and prove that the correct PPE/PPS was made available, but also that it was drawn, and presumably used, by those it is intended for.

The first benefit is a retrievable record showing that appropriate kit of the right size and fit was issued and drawn. The second is a “neutral” digital system which can not only ensure that expensive and desirable equipment is only replaced for genuine wear and tear reasons but also quantify losses and trace them back individual users on specific dates at specific locations.