How technology is advancing PPE< Back to Blog

While some people warmly embrace new technology, tools or practices in their workplace, others will sigh, moan or groan and do their best to avoid taking anything remotely innovative on board.

The problem, according to a study published in the Wall Street Journal this week, is that employees who resist new technology/ tools can drag down the entire team. The article adds that such negative responses to new tech is often based on psychological objections such as worries that their struggles with the technology will make them look incompetent or lose status.

The answer? Changes must be handled in ways that enable potential objectors to see the benefits first-hand.

Although the report largely focused on office-related technology, this got us thinking about the advances that have occurred within one area of construction work – personal protective clothing (or PPE) – and how people have responded to such changes.

From its early ‘hard hat’ and ‘steel-toe boot’ beginnings, PPE has evolved over recent years to incorporate anything that a person wears or uses to minimise health and safety risks in the workplace. The PPE industry is huge and continually being driven forwards by technological advances that now go beyond traditional ‘protection’ issues to address considerations around fit, style, comfort and even productivity.

Just like the abovementioned study would suggest, such changes elicit a mixed response from workers – some embrace what’s new and others try their best to resist.

Here’s just a few ways PPE has advanced in recent years:

Strength/durability – Thanks to collaborations between science and industry, the materials used in much of today’s PPE has become stronger and safer (but without adding extra weight). One example is Kevlar, a fibre which was first used within racing tyres in the 1970s but now acts as a strengthening agent within a variety of clothing, accessories and equipment.

Fire-protection – High manufacturing costs meant that fabrics which undergo chemical treatment to become fire-retardant were once only available for the military and other government uses. Nowadays such fabrics are much more accessible and can be found in PPE items such as clothing, face masks and coveralls.

Fashion – While construction workers might not be strutting down the catwalk (yet), a type of street-style fashion has definitely crept into the PPE that people are wearing today and there are actually some clear benefits to this. Health and safety professionals have realised that, when workers feel good while wearing their PPE, this improves compliance. And, for workers, wearing something which goes beyond pure functionality allows them to more easily flow from work to after-work situations. Examples of this trend include cargo pant style workwear, fashionable branded footwear (e.g. Cat or Steel Blue) and ‘snowboard sunnies’ style protective glasses.

Smart tech – Currently emerging onto the PPE scene are a host of high-tech products and materials which add value way beyond the protection, comfort or style agendas. There’s the innovative digital technology that’s gone into high-tech hard hats, for instance. Some of these hats are now capable of augmented reality, overlaying instructions onto real-world equipment; others have incorporated data-collecting sensors into the sweatband which helps to monitor things like the temperature or workers’ heart rate.

Sustainability – Although many PPE materials are traditionally derived from fossil fuel resources (e.g. polymers), today the demand for more environmentally friendly products has ramped up a level. In response, manufacturers are increasingly using more biopolymers and natural fibres, particularly for disposable PPE.

So, what’s next?

What people demand from their PPE has clearly changed, something which has increased the pressure on manufacturers to carry out more research and identify innovative solutions.

Of course, there will always be people who bemoan and resist any hint of change but we’ve already witnessed the way advancements in PPE have brought huge benefits – for safety, comfort, and personal style as well as in supporting the environment, improving productivity and fuelling new methods of working. We’re sure the future will bring many more advances which, on the whole, will be welcomed by the construction industry.

Before we sign off this week, let’s take a look at this piece of tech which was revealed by US robotics company, Sarcos, earlier this year.

Called the Guardian XO, this new full-body exoskeleton has been designed to help reduce the strain on construction workers.

Following almost two decades of development (at a cost of over $175 million), the Guardian XO is built with a strength amplification of 20 to 1. That means a 100-pound steel beam will feel like a 5-pound weight and workers will be able to carry up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time.

Set to be commercially available in 2020, we can’t help but wonder if this could launch the era of the bionic construction worker!

What do you think?

Date: 12.06.2019