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PPE History

For workers who spend most of their time out in hazardous situations, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is an absolute necessity to keep them safe on site.

When you first think of Personal Protective Equipment, your first thoughts might be safety goggles, protective boots, and construction hats. But before PPE clothing became a mandatory staple for tradesmen, its origins date further back than you might realise.

In the beginning…

Working with dust safetyPersonal protective equipment has a long history.

The first well documented use of PPE equipment was in World War One, in the form of respirators. The use of these respirators allowed the troops to escape the effects of harmful toxins and gas. The first respirator is thought to have been invented in the Sixteenth Century by Leonardo da Vinci, with a view to protecting the wearer from inhaling harmful agents such as dusts or chemicals from toxic weapons made of powder. As technology evolved, respirators became less expensive to purchase, less cumbersome, easier to use, more comfortable, and more durable.

Outside military settings, PPE equipment also dated back to the Middle Ages. Blacksmiths would wear protective aprons, and hand gear to prevent themselves from being burned or to stop equipment from falling on their heads.

Aside from respirators, other personal protection initially developed for combat also evolved into what has become PPE for everyday use, such as protective coveralls. As early as the Fourth Century, the Japanese conceptualised the idea of using iron plates strapped with leather to soldiers’ and horsemen’s torsos during combat to prevent injuries. Industrial revolution, commercial development and the evolution of technology have changed the landscape of protective armour.

Respiratory fit testing, or mask fit testing, is essentially a testing method to determine whether the person is wearing the right mask for the shape of his or her face. Respirators come in various sizes and while they are adjustable, the shape and size may differ between manufacturers.

Now, modern industry has translated armour into protective workwear, such as disposable coveralls to prevent contamination from biological, chemical and physical hazards. The main principles of PPE are to prevent hazards from entering or contacting workers’ bodies, and to prevent hazardous materials attaching to workers’ personal clothing from where it may subsequently enter their homes.

These coveralls can protect workers from contaminants such as mould and asbestos, and often these coveralls are made of high density polyethylene fibres to prevent migration of contaminants onto workers. These suits can often be extremely pliable, allowing workers to manoeuvre freely with minimum restrictions.

The modern industry has drastically evolved since then, with greater focus on protective workwear for a range of trade industries. PPE now extends to clothing, footwear, goggles and other garments that are all designed to protect an individual from injury.

Headgear history

Hard hats and headgear can be traced back as far back as soldiers in ancient times, who wore protective headgear when heading off to battle. The ironclad material was definitely heavy- so heavy in fact often times when a soldier would fall off their horse, they would need help from others to get up again!

Nonetheless, the humble helmet played an integral role in the face of defeat.

Headgear in the form of hard hats also helped to protect construction workers and miners from potential injury. Today, the hard hat is a compulsory requirement for worksites.

In the early 1800s, shipbuilding workers would paint their hats in tar and cure them under the sun to solidify. When they hardened, they would be strong enough to protect their heads from being struck by falling objects.

They are now generally made of harder plastic materials and composites, including:

Fiberglass, Vulcanised rubber, Aluminium and Polyurethane.

Some of these materials have the added benefit of being flame and heat resistant.

Seeing clearly and safely

The real breakthrough in eye protection safety came from Powell Johnson, an African- American inventor who patented “eye protectors” in 1880. Welders, construction workers, and others in hazardous professions can thank safety goggles for helping to protect their eyesight.

The 20th Century saw a real demand for increased high-quality protection, leading to more innovative and refined designs compared to the basic designs seen previously. Fashionable safety eyewear is now available, that workers can enjoy wearing, whilst still being highly functional. You can now even buy prescription goggles and glasses, which are in compliance with safety standards.

Glove development

The origins of protective gloves date back to eighth century BC, where ancient poet Homer’s Odyssey gives a description of Laertes using gloves to protect his hands from thorns while working in the garden.

Throughout the centuries, gloves have further expanded to a fashion statement, but are still being used as protective everyday protective wear.

There are now many types of gloves that are used on various jobsites. Though the overall design hasn’t evolved much, you can now get gloves with flexi-options, fleece and water- resistant materials for improved function in wet environments.

Best foot forward

Footwear PPE didn’t exist in industry until the late 1800s, when protective boots were introduced, reinforced with steel and made from stiff leather.

Modern safety boots are now designed to better protect the individual wearer, with features including:

Water resistant and waterproof materials, such as Gore-Tex, to protect the wearer from penetrating liquids.  Puncture resistant soles and steel toe caps to prevent potential injury. Weatherproof designs to protect the wearer from extreme heat or cold, by using varying levels of insulation.

The vast development of PPE equipment across the ages has greatly benefitted the modern trade industry. Its continuous innovation will ensure even safer measures for tradesmen while tackling day- to day tasks onsite.

All personal protective equipment needs to be selected correctly for the type of hazard that a worker may encounter. While today’s occupational protective equipment is a derivative of combative protective equipment, we should never consider that occupational PPE provides the same level of protection as combative protective equipment. Despite the violence and horror of war, the development of combative protective wear has directly benefitted industrial protective equipment.