Personal protective equipment (PPE) rarely makes the headlines. But this humble yet essential piece of equipment has quite literally dominated the news cycle during the coronavirus pandemic. Stories of frontline healthcare workers risking their lives due to lack of adequate PPE have been all over the news; a stark reminder of how vital this equipment is.

Having worked with some of the leading brands in this space, we know that PPE is now more important than ever when it comes to protecting workers. What used to be a purely physical piece of equipment, is turning into smart PPE; a connected, wearable device in the Internet of Things (IoT). From real-time exposure monitoring to on-demand training, here are three ways in which the latest disruptive technology is transforming how we keep our workers safe.

1. Keep one step ahead of PPE shortages

An effective PPE inventory management system is key to ensuring that all workers can count on adequate protection whenever they need it. PPE embedded with radio-frequency identification (RFID) or quick response (QR) tags can play a key role in streamlining this process. Key data, including information on compliance with standards and expiry dates, can be captured with a scanner or smartphone in seconds and automatically uploaded on to a software-based inventory management platform. Potentially, the ability to keep on top of PPE stock levels and compliance can help critical industries be better prepared when a major crisis like covid-19 unfolds.

2. PPE training anywhere, anytime

Unless it is worn and used correctly, PPE can be totally ineffective, which is why one-to-one training, including fit testing, is essential. But training every worker individually can be a real challenge, especially when time and resources are stretched to their limit. With QR tags, every worker can now access e-training anywhere, anytime. Tutorial videos, check lists and instructions can be visualised on a smartphone through an app. In this way, a safety manager can also check on their smartphone or tablet, via the cloud, whether a worker has been trained to wear a certain type of PPE. Bluetooth®-enabled PPE such as electronic headsets, combined with sensing technology, also feature automatic fit testing; workers receive automatic audio and visual notifications (on their smartphones) if they are not wearing their PPE correctly. Rigorous, manual fit testing remains imperative for PPE such as masks. But our experience tells us that it is entirely possible that, in future, sensing technology will automate part of this process too.

3. Real-time prevention of occupational illnesses and injuries

Like other wearables, PPE can be embedded with miniaturised sensors and connectivity to monitor a worker’s safety and health in real time. For example, Bluetooth®-enabled electronic headsets with miniaturised, in-ear microphones, can be paired to a smartphone to transmit noise exposure data via the cloud.

In this way, both workers and safety managers can monitor personal exposure in real time and intervene to prevent noise induced hearing loss (NIHL).

With retrofitted wireless data transfer technology such as Near Field Communication (NFC) combined with innovations in wearable sensors, virtually every type of PPE now has the potential to become smart. Intelligent harnesses and smart footwear, for example, can help safety managers continuously monitor a worker’s posture, enabling them to tackle musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) proactively.

With the smart PPE market set to grow by over $2.5 billion over the next three years, the safety industry has a unique opportunity to continue to innovate and transform occupational health and safety. Technology can help us ensure that workers can always count on the protection they need, especially when they most need it.

Having worked with some of the leading manufacturers of PPE worldwide, we know the health and safety industry inside out. We support companies in creating a broad range of targeted and compelling content for the health and safety industry. For more information contact us.