Tomorrow’s PPE Puts Worker Comfort First

One solution to getting workers to consistently wear PPE: Make it more comfortable.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense against injury. The challenge is getting employees to use it when they should. It’s not unheard-of for workers to remove a helmet when it’s blazing hot out or rip off gloves when they need more dexterity. After all, no one ever expects an accident will happen to them.

The good news is that PPE manufacturers have been listening to complaints from the jobsite. Some of today’s biggest PPE innovations are aimed at providing both safety and comfort.

Comfortable gloves that protect against more hazards

A 2015 survey from the American Society of Safety Engineers found that hand injuries such as cuts and punctures remain a major problem because workers refuse to wear gloves for all tasks. Lack of comfort was one of the reasons cited.

Glove manufacturers are exploring new material combinations to create gloves workers won’t feel the need to take off. Some of today’s most comfortable options have two layers — for example, a protective Kevlar layer outside and a soft nylon layer inside.

New technology is helping manufacturers give comfortable gloves a protection boost.

“What we’re seeing now are these little rectangles of heavy duty rubber on the back of the hand or fingers to protect from some types of crush hazard,” said Daniel Glucksman, public affairs director for the International Safety Equipment Association. ISEA has a standard in the works to create consistency in the level of protection these gloves offer.

When choosing a general purpose construction glove, consider this: Spending more for a higher-quality glove that’s lighter and form-fitting might pay off. If gloves are comfortable enough for a wide variety of tasks, workers may be more likely to keep them on and less likely to remove them for one task then forget to put them back on for another.

Vests and jackets that keep workers cool

Extreme heat and humidity kills dozens of workers each year, according to OSHA. Thousands more become ill. The best way to reduce these risks is through a heat illness prevention plan that ensures workers have appropriate water, shade and rest. But cooling gear can help, too.

A number of manufacturers now offer vests, bandanas, hats and other wearables designed to reduce the risk of heat-related illness. Cooling vests lower body temperature via a cool layer — often a gel that can be cooled in ice water or a trailer fridge — that’s placed close to the skin to absorb body heat.

ZIPPKOOL has designed workwear that creates an artificial airflow around the body to help sweat vaporize quickly. The company will soon release an ANSI Class 3 compliant short sleeve cooling jacket that it says can replace the traditional safety vests typically used for road construction.

A helmet that stays put

Blame it on heat, slippage, poor fit, or some other reason, but too often, workers ignore the requirement to wear a hardhat, and the consequences can be dire. Twenty-five percent of all construction fatalities from 2003 to 2010 were the result of traumatic brain injury, and few of those victims were wearing hardhats.

GCs looking for more comfortable — and safer — head protection options are looking beyond the traditional hardhat to designs that mimic the safety features and fit of helmets used in contact sports.

Skanska is one company testing the Zenith helmet made by Italian company KASK, better known for its bike helmets. The helmet has a chin strap so it won’t shift or fall off during a blow or a fall. This feature helped it achieve rated protection against impacts to the top of the head (like a traditional hardhat) and also to the front and back of the head. It has an optional retractable visor that satisfies OSHA requirements for eye protection.

While Skanska acknowledged the look of the helmet may take a little getting used to, there’s at least one factor speeding its adoption at the company: Crews reportedly find it comfortable to wear.