Smart PPE and Workplace Wearables
Personal protective equipment (PPE) can include a variety of safety wear, including high-visibility clothing, eye protection, hard hats, safety footwear and gloves. The pandemic has helped to speed up PPE research, resulting in more advanced technological solutions, generally called Smart PPE.
What is Smart PPE?
Smart PPE (SPPE) refers to wearable technology comprising a variety of sensors that can be used to monitor things like positioning, pressure, stress and environmental air quality. SPPE combines electronic components or enhanced materials with the traditional means of protection, to collect data on the wearer, their workplace environment, and its own performance.
Safety equipment, such as eyewear or gloves, uses IoT (Internet of Things) or Bluetooth tech to connect to the internet; the sensors then transmit safety information to a controller. Feedback can be given directly to the wearer or to other personnel operating in the field, warning of safety hazards and adjusting to changes in the operating environment.
Enhanced materials for muscular protection are being tested, such as knee protectors, which are traditionally inflexible and constrict normal movement. The new materials are softer and more flexible, allowing normal movement until greater protection is needed. They can then change their properties to apply a shock-absorbing effect precisely where it's demanded.
Smart PPE is more often used to describe electronic enhancements to traditional PPE. Sensors, detectors, batteries, data transfer modules, cables and other components are built into protective clothing, such as that worn by firefighters. They'll measure the wearer's physical functions, such as blood pressure, heart rate and core body temperature, to ensure that person is working within safe physiological parameters.
Other sensors can be used to monitor an employee's physical surroundings, to measure the external temperature, and to detect gas leaks or toxic chemicals. What's more, the smart PPE can provide information on its own condition after use, to be stored and analysed. This allows controllers to ensure that sufficient protection is still being provided. It also enables an assessment of what type and level of cleaning the PPE might require. Big data, collected from workers in many types of hazardous environments, will help to optimise the overall level of protection provided. It can also form part of a risk assessment programme.
What are the drawbacks?
When adopting any new technological advances, you have to be careful that you know how it works. You need to know that it will deliver real benefits - and that you're not introducing additional risks to the employee or the workplace. For example, most smart PPE will require batteries to power its electronics. These may have to be worn very close to the body, and pose their own risks of overheating. There are electromagnetic risks involved too, which may affect medical implants. There's also the psychosocial impact of people being constantly monitored.
For SPPE to be beneficial, it must work effectively alongside traditional protective elements and not in opposition to them, especially if its use creates new risks or reduces their protective properties. At present, it's mostly in the developmental phase. Employers are obliged under current legislation to provide PPE, but how and whether to integrate SPPE into this is subject to debate.
If you are unsure, or would like further advice - please do not hesitate to contact us.