Smart PPE promises greater safety and comfort, but what challenges will OSH professionals need to overcome?
The market in smart PPE is capturing the sector’s attention. But according to an EU-OSHA discussion paper, it is still a young industry that should be viewed with ‘a fair degree of scepticism’. Much disquiet centres around developments that may allow employers to ‘incorporate rating systems or other metrics into performance evaluation, reduce the cost of monitoring and surveillance, profile workers, influence their behaviours [and] discipline them’.
Increased use of technology such as artificial intelligence may well give rise to legal, regulatory and ethical questions (see IOSH magazine, March/April 2021) and have mental health implications (see Making mental health matter).
However, smart PPE looks here to stay – as does its sales growth – because of its potential for saving lives. Take protective garments for firefighters, for example. Embedded sensors can monitor heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, as well as detect toxic gases or intense heat.
Top challenges: Implementing smart PPE on a large scale
- The certification process and appropriate standards
- Ensuring no new risks are created by the inclusion of electronics
- Education and training of OSH with smart PPE
- Not overloading users with data or information
- Supplying comprehensive information to users, eg limitations/usage/cleaning
- Getting feedback from users
- Data protection
- Cost/benefit analyses
- How to recycle at product’s ‘end of life’
In most cases, the ‘smart’ aspect of PPE is the incorporation of electronics, combining protective wear with sensors and Bluetooth. For UK construction industry health and safety manager Martin Edwards, it means active hearing protection and social distancing warning devices for his crews (see Case study, below). For Simon Ash, UK sales manager at workwear supplier HAIX, it’s more to do with ‘smart materials’.
‘The development of nanocarbon allows us to produce toecaps and reinforced areas that meet the same safety and protection standards as steel, but remain ultra-lightweight,’ Simon says. Likewise, by using biomechanics, footwear manufacturers can address issues such as plantar fasciitis.
‘Design technology can integrate support tape to stimulate the spiral fascia, maintaining a more natural foot position,’ he says. ‘This helps to reduce wearer fatigue, especially when boots are worn over long working periods. They also act to minimise the long-term injury risk associated with standing at length.’
The applications for smart PPE are incredibly varied, acknowledges Shachar Harari, chief business officer and head of Cardo Crew in Tel Aviv, which makes communications modules for PPE. ‘Technology can make a huge difference in medical, industrial, maritime and construction, as well as those working outdoors. For example, workers can maintain social distancing and communicate seamlessly without needing to handle a physical device or remove any safety wear. This saves valuable time and ensures that worker safety is prioritised above all else.’
The implications of COVID-19 have also increased the need for smart PPE, says Amjad Awwad, operational integrity (health, safety and environment) business partner at SGS in Houston, Texas. Amjad works across the oil, gas and chemicals lines of business, covering 30 sites and more than 300 employees. He says: ‘We’re starting to see sensors where there’s an alert if you’re not wearing a mask, or if the maximum occupancy of a room is reached, you’re told to wait. And, away from COVID, machinery that can detect if you’re wearing the correct PPE – and if you’re not, you won’t be allowed to operate it.’
All these positives suggest further growth in the industry. A Technavio report put smart PPE’s potential for growth during 2020-24 at US$1.85bn.
Case study: Road test for ear defenders
Smart PPE is employed on the major construction project worked on by Martin Edwards. The health and safety manager for Terrafirma Pipeline says: ‘We’re involved in the installation, rerouting, diverting and renewal of utilities and services, mainly gas, in Greater London.’
Martin says: ‘We have active monitoring ear defenders in a helmet-mounted system that tells us what noise levels people are exposed to and reduces the levels by filtration. It’s a constant live system that uses Bluetooth technology to create noise maps for the project area. This allows us to identify high noise-level zones.’
The system provides continuous data collection, including external noise emission and personal dosimetry. ‘We can see the source, whether the protection was adequate and the actual exposure, and track it against the activities being undertaken. The data has enabled us to consider how we could redesign, change and consider alternative ways of working or positioning of the teams,’ he says.
Has this innovation been difficult to introduce? ‘Like anything new,’ he says, ‘its benefits are broadly appreciated and some see it as a challenge. But like most innovative solutions in the construction industry, once it has been implemented fully, it’s not an issue anymore.’
He fully expects it to pay off long-term. ‘We can pinpoint individuals who are being exposed to high noise levels and make sure that we monitor and protect them, particularly if they have suffered from noise-induced hearing loss in the past.’
Another smart PPE innovation is the use of social distancing warning devices. Worn on a neck strap, an alarm goes off if another user encroaches by two metres for more than a few seconds.
Martin is cautiously optimistic about the advance of technology in OSH. ‘It’s exciting,’ he says, ‘but it needs to be manageable on a practical basis.’
Hurdles to jump
However, many obstacles need to be overcome in implementing smart PPE (see Top challenges, above). For Shachar, much of it revolves around wireless communication technology: ‘Businesses need to make sure they choose tech that’s proven and reliable. It also needs to be integrated in a user-friendly way that fits in with their day-to-day role; otherwise it could become a dangerous distraction. It also requires buy-in from everybody to ensure workers are comfortable, trained and know how to maximise its use safely.’
Amjad highlights the importance of ensuring no new risks are created by the inclusion of smarter PPE. ‘This is extremely important as the last thing any HSE [health, safety and environment] professional would want is to introduce new risks that would hinder the ability of employees to perform their jobs safely.’ He also focuses on the recycling of smart PPE, which may contain electronics. ‘Smart PPE needs to be feasibly recycled without adding an extra cost to operations and capable of being picked up by waste hauliers.’
A third area he highlights is the need to get feedback from users. ‘Without this, we will never fully appreciate the practicality and usefulness of smart PPE and this great opportunity will be squandered.’
Amjad is undaunted by the challenge of the certification process with new equipment. He says: ‘I believe that the certification process of the new equipment will be well covered as the process is already in place for other smart devices currently being inspected.’
Last line of defence
Of course, PPE sits at the bottom of the inverted hierarchy of controls pyramid. When engineering and safe systems of work have been applied, for example, some hazards may still remain, which may require PPE to reduce the risk.
Amjad says: ‘As an HSE business partner, I work with management constantly to identify ways to further protect our employees beyond the traditional measures based on the hierarchy of controls triangle.
‘For example, it has become imperative to better understand why certain PPE is more regularly worn and compliance is better. My view is that the better the data, the better the conversations you will have with both the employees wearing the PPE and the management making the decisions on it.
‘The data will allow management to better understand compliance and how to better adjust equipment with PPE sensors. The cost incurred should be offset by the benefits being reaped with these investments and the fostering of a proactive safety culture. It’s a win-win outcome.’