Nanomaterials: The Future of Personal Protective Equipment

Feb. 1, 2009
Personal protective equipment (PPE) of the future will be built on a foundation of nanomaterials that will yield a range of new properties to save more lives and prevent more injuries, as well as affording workers enhanced communication, increased comfort and greater durability.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) of the future will be built on a foundation of nanomaterials that will yield a range of new properties to save more lives and prevent more injuries, as well as affording workers enhanced communication, increased comfort and greater durability.

That is the bold new world of PPE envisioned by one of the leading U.S. authorities on nanotechnology science. Richard W. Siegel, Ph.D., founding director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y., shared his perspectives at “Protection 2033,” a symposium on worker health and safety over the next 25 years. Dr. Siegel is a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology, and his research has been recognized around the world. The International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) sponsored the event in November 2008 to commemorate its 75th anniversary and as a look ahead to its centennial year.

What new technologies did Siegel's crystal ball reveal and how will they translate into better PPE? Workers and those responsible for protecting them will have numerous options from which to choose.

In the area of eye and face protection, the professor predicts tougher, more scratch-resistant plastic face masks and spectacles with transparency and reflectivity that workers can tune to their needs or that will respond automatically to their environment. And this eye/face protection will have built-in, embedded electronic communications devices and instrumentation, along with interactive displays powered by lightweight batteries. They will be equipped with sensors for thermal, chemical and biological monitoring.

Head protection is likely to be transparent to enhance all-around visibility, and made from lighter weight, tougher ceramic/polymer-nanocomposite armor. It also will come equipped with embedded communications devices, as well as sensors to detect and warn of hazardous environments, and to provide thermal management (heating, cooling). Similar advances will provide hearing protection that is more active and responsive, adjusting to fluctuations in workplace noise level.

Hand and foot protection also will benefit from nanomaterials. Expect lighter weight, ceramic-nanocomposite armor embedded in flexible polymer composites to yield more robust footwear and gloves that heal themselves. And these protective devices also will have embedded, responsive thermal management systems for greater comfort, and embedded sensors to detect and warn of environments carrying thermal, chemical or biological threats. Siegel even envisions foot and hand protection having built-in first-aid with therapeutic delivery in the event of an injury, and more work-efficient materials to enhance performance and reduce fatigue.

Siegel predicts that some of the most profound advances will be made in protective and high-visibility apparel. These enhancements will be derived from instrumented, lightweight, responsive textiles that use tougher, wear-resistant polymers that also benefit from embedded, ceramic-composite armor. Like future hand and foot protection, these garments will have embedded warning, thermal-management and first-aid systems.

High- or modulated-visibility (tunable) textiles powered by lightweight, flexible batteries embedded in the fabric will enable manufacturers to produce garments that are visible day or night — at any level of light. And when the need arises, these items will be equipped with electronic communications systems with interactive displays and remote monitoring of worker conditions.

In a real sense, the future of worker protection looks very bright. But how far away are these PPE advances? While some may not be available until ISEA's 100th anniversary, others could be just around the corner. A show of hands at the “Protection 2033” symposium indicated that a number of ISEA member companies already are working to apply some of these miraculous new technologies to their products. Stay tuned.

With Nanotechnology's Promise Also Comes Challenges

While carrying great promise for products that protect workers better, nanotechnology also presents new challenges in protecting workers. That was one conclusion of John Howard, M.D., former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), who examined the future of occupational safety and health at “Protection 2033.”

“Nanomaterials present new challenges to understanding, predicting and managing potential health risks to workers,” Howard said. “Following our staid 20th century historical practices, by the time a material is in commerce, scientific data on the health effects in exposed workers or the public — especially long-term health effects — are largely still unavailable and a government risk management that is specific is still decades away.

“In the case of nanomaterials, the uncertainties are magnified because the characteristics of nanomaterials may be different from those of the larger particles with the same chemical composition… As we forge ahead with these 21st century technologies, we must simultaneously take a hard look at our current risk characterization, risk control and risk communications methods … and ask ourselves: ‘Are they the ones that will best serve as effective tools to help us achieve out global occupational safety and health goals in a changing 21st century world?’”

(Editor's note: The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently posted on its Web site a new Safety and Health Topics Page on nanotechnology; find out more in the “Making Workers Safer Around the Nation” column in this Protection Update.)

Howard cited other profound challenges to protecting workers over the next 25 years, including (1) changing demographics of the workforce, and a (2) changing structure of employment, with rapid growth in temporary or contingent employment. And he called for a paradigm shift from emphasizing “work-related safety and health” to “worker safety and health.”

“It is not enough to say that our job is to ensure that workers go home from work as healthy as they came to work,” Howard said. “We need to assist workers in returning to work the next day as healthy as we sent them home the day before.”

Specific steps Howard suggested to address worker safety challenges include: (1) better collaboration between OSHA and NIOSH to achieve a unified approach to worker safety and health, and (2) enhanced injury and illness recordkeeping and reporting at the federal level.

Also at “Protection 2033,” futurist John Mahaffie described the changing nature of work over the next 25 years where (1) knowledge work is blended with physical work; (2) everything is monitored from anywhere; (3) there is direct design-to-production, and the joystick is the worker's prime tool; (4) prefab exceeds on-site work, and (5) there is “green” everything.

Mahaffie suggested that the definition of PPE itself may be a constraint, and that “work enhancement technology” might be a better term for the protective products of the future. (Editor's note: “Protection 2033” presentations are available from ISEA's homepage,; click on “Protection2033” under the “Fall Meeting Wrap-up.”)


Joe Walker is marketing communications advisor to the International Safety Equipment Association. In addition to serving as editor of several ISEA publications, he manages the ISEA marketing program. Reach him at 703-525-1695 or [email protected].

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