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Backlit masks for PPE.

The Future of PPE Will Be More Personal

July 5, 2022
The next generation of personal protective equipment will emphasize greater protection, functionality, comfort – and even fashion.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic “personal protective equipment (PPE)” was a term 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 found themselves discussing the effectiveness of various masks and respirators with friends and families in casual conversations, and images appeared of nurses and doctors with faces bruised faces by masks after 12-hour shifts are burned into our memories.

Now COVID-19 infections are declining and vaccination rates are rising. Jobsites are open again — if they closed at all — and industrial workers are 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 away, and its next generation will offer protection, functionality, comfort, and even fashion.

For PPE to truly protect workers from on-site hazards, they must be confident they can wear PPE properly—without worry of irritation or improper fit. For example, a key characteristic 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 are new developments following COVID-19, improved breathability likely will continue to be a feature of respirators.

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 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 protective or prescription eyewear.

Long-term, reusable PPE. As global demand for PPE surged in 2020, the supply chain struggled to deliver against unprecedented volumes, setting off a scramble to combat shortages. As governments collaborated with manufacturers to increase PPE production, 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 measurement of success in developing long-term solutions for respiratory protection. Should the supply chain struggle again to meet the demand for disposable masks, 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.

Embracing style to improve use. The pandemic prompted a rise in fashion-forward face masks from apparel companies, with different patterns, colors, and imagery. Manufacturers should expect newer, younger workers to expect to be able to choose and express their personal style while at work.

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

When employees are slow to adopt PPE, employers should consider getting employee feedback, including 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.

Smarter PPE. Today, workers are more accustomed than ever to wearable technology, such as fitness trackers and smart watches. In the future, PPE will be increasingly connected. Smart PPE technology will allow wearers to ensure proper fitment, collect environmental data to understand the risks better and, of course, be protected from workplace hazards. For example, where there is excessive noise levels, employers may 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 use technology can allow workers to be more responsive to safety issues and empowers workers to proactively mitigate or prevent future safety hazards. In doing so, workers are given more control over their own workplace safety, for immediate and long-term health.

Considerations for employers. Following COVID-19, employers are pursuing safer workplaces and 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—since 2019, worker protection and safety measures remain a high priority. Industrial leaders should look for adaptable, efficient products that can support 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 serving aerospace, buildings and cities, chemicals and materials, health care and pharma, industrial and manufacturing, retail, safety, and supply chain.