The requirements for personal protective equipment (PPE) have evolved over the years, with some forms even incorporating technology.

Personal Protective Equipment 101: PPE’s Evolution Over the Years

The Workplace Today Industry Insights & Trends

Ever wonder wonder how personal protective equipment (PPE) came to be? Here’s a brief look at the evolution of PPE.

OSHA defines personal protective equipment (PPE) as “equipment worn to minimize exposure to serious workplace injuries and illnesses.” PPE includes, but is not limited to, hard hats, respirators, ear plugs, gloves, safety harnesses, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes and body suits. This protective gear has evolved significantly over time: Originally put in place to reverse the sheer number of injuries and illnesses that resulted from working under hazardous conditions during the heyday of the industrial revolution, PPE has changed to be more efficient and effective at protecting its wearers.

The Evolution of Personal Protective Equipment

1. Hard Hats

An article in Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) magazine states that gold miners had crafted bowler hats to protect their heads from falling debris. These hats had rounded brims, were made of hard felt and were stuffed with cotton. The Golden Gate Bridge project was the first major project that required all workers to wear hard hats. These hats were constructed of canvas “impregnated with resin,” and had an internal suspension system. Later, hats were briefly made of aluminum, but these had the unfortunate side effect of corroding and conducting electricity. Thermoplastics became the material of choice in the 1950s, and injection-molding greatly assisted in creating a uniform consistency throughout.

Hard hat safety for industrial applications hasn’t improved greatly since then. Instead, the focus has been on comfort and convenience, including integration of other PPE, such as earplugs, and the incorporation of Bluetooth technology.

2. Safety Harnesses

In the early 1900s, many tradespeople used hemp or other natural fiber body belts. Shock-absorbing properties were not incorporated into safety belts until late 1959. This was a major step. When someone falls, the action of stopping the fall in progress can cause significant injuries, which shock absorption can help reduce or eliminate.

In the 1990s, snap hook connectors that locked, full body harnesses, straps, D-rings and other components of a fall prevention system entered into force. Since then, much of the focus has been on industry specialization, such as fall prevention for oil rig or aircraft workers.

3. Respirators

Respirators date back to the Roman Empire during which animal bladders were used to protect miners from the inhalation of iron oxide dust. In the mid-1800s, the charcoal gas filter mask was invented. Two decades later, this was improved upon and became known as the “fireman’s respirator.” However, respirators weren’t widely adopted in the U.S. until the early 1900s.

In the 1970s, manufacturers began incorporating a blower and filter inside a helmet. Known as Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR), these are extremely useful when face and eye contamination are a consideration. However, most respirators use simpler technology because breathing is the sole concern. As sensing technology improves and costs decrease, PAPRs will likely become more widely used.

4. Ear Plugs

The earliest written reference to earplugs is from the Greek drama, The Odyssey, in which the sailors use beeswax in their ears to block the song of the Sirens. In the early 1900s, earplugs were made of cotton and wax and were targeted for residential use in densely populated neighborhoods. Later, the manufacturers began touting earplugs’ benefits to industry.

Foam became the preferred material in the 1960s, then polyurethane foam decades later. A newer material, thermal plastic elastomer, allows people to better shape the earplug to their ears. However, beyond better fit, there have been few technological advancements in recent years. The focus is on getting workers to use ear protection more frequently and consistently to reduce hearing loss.

5. Safety Glasses

Safety glasses have an interesting history. According to another OHS magazine article, safety glasses may have first been created by native tribes in Alaska as a way to help prevent snow blindness. Since then, they have evolved to incorporate the myriad needs of protection from dust, splashes and other contaminants. They have also evolved to protect eyes from glare and wind.

The current focus on protective eye wear is to strongly encourage workers to actually wear them at all times. The industry has responded by creating fashionable eye wear that workers enjoy wearing and by even making prescription-based safety glasses and goggles. The simple act of wearing basic, standard-compliant protective eye wear can help reduce the incidence rate of eye injuries.

Personal protective equipment has evolved significantly over the years, and most pronounced since the mid-20th century. Although the changes in PPE requirements and standards have helped shepherd in many of the improvements of recent decades, convenience and usability have also played major roles in PPE’s recent evolution.

Tiffany C. Wright
Tiffany C. Wright

Tiffany C. Wright is the author of The Funding Is Out There!, Access the Cash You Need to Impact Your Business and Solving the Capital Equation: Financing Solutions for Small Businesses. She is the founder of The Resourceful CEO, which helps owners of small/medium-sized businesses prepare their businesses for sale. Tiffany has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, sits on non-profit boards and serves as a business mentor with the Cherie Blair Foundation.