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The Future of PPE

Nov. 10, 2021
Post-COVID-19, here’s what to expect from the next generation of personal protective equipment.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the term personal protective equipment (PPE) was primarily used by professionals who wore it daily to keep them safe on the job. Then, seemingly all at once, national attention turned to PPE.

Industrial workers quickly found themselves discussing the effectiveness of various masks and respirators with their friends and families in casual conversations, and images from the pandemic of nurses and doctors with bruised faces from their masks after 12-hour shifts are burned into our memories.

We’ve recently reached a point where COVID-19 infections are declining in many areas of the United States, while vaccination rates are rising globally. Jobsites are slowly reopening—assuming they closed at all—and industrial workers are once again donning their PPE.

What’s different now is that employers have a new perspective on workers’ PPE needs. PPE in the industrial workspace isn’t going anywhere, and the next generation will offer protection, functionality, comfort and even fashion.

For PPE to truly protect workers from on-site hazards, they need to be confident they can wear PPE properly—without worry of irritation or improper fit.

For example, a key component of respirators is the breathability of the material, or the ability of the fabric to let air pass through so that the wearer can safely inhale and exhale. The breathability of a mask can be altered by numerous variables, including the type of fabric, the number of layers within the mask and how tightly the mask is affixed.

In addition to breathability, it is crucial that the mask filters air properly to prevent airborne transmission of harmful bacteria, viruses, dust or other unwanted contaminants. There are now masks with lightweight fabric that promote a high level of breathability and filtration so that the wearer is not overwhelmed with the build-up of heat, moisture and CO2 within the mask. Although these new developments are a result of COVID-19, improved breathability will likely be a key feature in respirators long after the pandemic is declared over.

Another crucial step toward promoting PPE adoption is for PPE to be properly fitted and comfortable for extended wear. 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. With these key features, employees who must don masks for hours at a time—and at varying levels of physical exertion—are less likely to experience discomfort from chaffing, indentations, perspiration or lens fogging when worn with eye protection or prescription glasses.

Investing in the Future: Looking Toward Long-term, Reusable PPE Solutions

As global demand for PPE surged in 2020, the supply chain struggled to deliver against unprecedented volumes, setting off a global scramble to combat shortages. While governments collaborated with manufacturers to increase production of PPE, industrial workers were unable to gain access to respirators, which were being diverted for health care use.

Reusability of a face mask will be a key measurement of success in developing long-term solutions for respiratory protection. Should the supply chain struggle to meet the demand for disposable masks again in the future, jobsite managers may consider more reliable and sustainable alternatives, such as Air Purifying Respirators (APRs) and Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs).

These portable alternatives offer increased levels of protection in areas with a higher concentration of contaminants through a comprehensive system containing an air purifying filter, canister for contaminants, motor, headpiece and breathing tube. Not only do PAPRs provide added comfort through a loose-fitting hood and face pieces, but workers can reuse and clean them, ultimately reducing the environmental impact and total cost of single-use disposable masks.

Elevating Aesthetics: Embracing Style to Improve Use

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the rise of fashion-forward face masks from apparel companies that offered different patterns, colors and imagery. As we shepherd in a new, younger wave of workers, manufacturers should be prepared for them to have this same sense of wanting to choose and express their personal style while at work, too.

Industrial safety PPE extends far beyond respirators for a full portfolio of head-to-toe protection. There are harnesses for those who work at height, gloves for those who work with sharp machinery and rubber boots for those who work in electrical safety, among others. When employers are considering new PPE products across the board, they should look for ways to incorporate workers’ personal choice and style. Functionality to protect a worker is of utmost importance, but choices in style and design may lead to better adoption rates.

For employers struggling with PPE adoption, consider getting employee feedback. This could include showing them the catalog or ordering swatches and samples to try on the different styles and ensure the products fit, feel and look good. Soliciting employee feedback also shows them that their employer values their opinions about what they need and want to get the job done safely.

Educating through Tech: Using Smarter PPE

Today, workers are more accustomed than ever to wearable technology in their personal lives, such as fitness trackers and smart watches. In the future, PPE will become increasingly connected. Smart PPE technology will enable wearers to ensure the proper fitment, collect data from their environment to better understand the risks and, of course, be protected from workplace hazards. For example, in industries that are impacted by excessive noise levels, employers can integrate technology that allows for remotely monitoring noise, performing annual audiometric screenings and hazard training on the irreversible impact of noise-induced hearing loss.

Product innovations that utilize technology can allow workers to be more responsive in the event of a safety issue and empowers workers to proactively mitigate or prevent future safety hazards. In doing so, workers are given more control over their safety in the workplace, both for immediate and long-term health.

The Road Ahead for PPE: Considerations for Employers

In the wake of COVID-19, employers are in pursuit of a safer workplace. Industries are developing comprehensive and versatile worker protection systems that understand the importance of preventative planning and workplace risk assessments.

While solutions for workplace health and safety have changed—and advanced—greatly since 2019, worker protection and safety measures remain a high priority. Industry leaders should continue to look for adaptable, efficient products that can support their employees through a workforce evolution brought on by crisis. That includes protecting workers from physical hazards by having access to safe and reliable PPE.

Sayanti Basu is global director of respiratory protection for Honeywell, a multinational company that serves the following industries: aerospace, buildings and cities, chemicals and materials, health care and pharma, industrial and manufacturing, retail, safety and supply chain.

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