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Safer Safety: PPE advances for better protection

By Jeff Gavin | Nov 15, 2023
Getty Images /	royyimzy / WaveCel / Sentinel Occupational Safety and Rogers-O’Brien Construction / Magid / Legacy Biomechanics Laboratory

Personal protective equipment innovations are helping a top-down, bottom-up commitment to safety take root. Such advances in gear meet the day and have an eye toward tomorrow. 

Personal protective equipment innovations are helping a top-down, bottom-up commitment to safety take root. Such advances in gear meet the day and have an eye toward tomorrow. 

A perfect example of PPE advancement is the hard hat. Borrowing a page from bicycle helmet design, hard hats factor in top, front, side and rear head impact protection. On construction sites and in indoor facilities, such safety helmets resemble the traditional hard hat, but the underside is a different story. That’s where manufacturers have developed damping technologies to better protect the brain from rotational forces. 

Michael Bottlang, founder and director of research and development (R&D) for WaveCel, Wilsonville, Ore., described what rotational damping technologies address. 

“The brain weighs several pounds. It’s a heavy organ and it’s very soft. It has lots of connections. If the head, the skull, rotates quickly, the brain will lag. It gets distorted. For example, in a boxing match if someone hits my chin, my skull starts to rotate. Some parts of the brain stay where they were due to inertia. The other ones start to rotate, and everything connected gets stretched to the point where they get damaged, often permanently,” he said.

Producing the “safest helmet technology” has been the central tenet for WaveCel. Bottlang also serves as director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore., where WaveCel helmets are tested.

Beyond fatalities, there are 2.6 fatal traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, per 100,000 construction workers, according to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Even mild TBIs can affect cognitive function, coordination, movement and even social behavior throughout a person’s lifetime. 

Under ANSI Z89.1-2014 (R2019), hard hats fall into two categories. Type I offers crown protection. Type II dampens rotational force. OSHA also addresses hard hats: OSHA 29 CFR 1910.135 mandates employees must wear protective helmets that reduce electrical shock when working near exposed electrical conductors. OSHA 29 CFR 1926.100 adds protection from burns for construction, demolition and renovation workers. Both requirements reference ANSI Z89.1. 

WaveCel’s nonvented helmets are E-rated and tested according to ANSI Z89.1 standard, and supply protection up to 20,000V. The company’s vented helmets are C-rated but aren’t designed for electrical protection.

Bottlang “mentioned rotational acceleration being the true culprit of brain injury,” said Clayton Madey, director of business development for WaveCel. “There was a huge body of international research, a lot of which was led by him. Today, antirotation system-designed bike helmets are commonplace. Only recently have helmets in the industrial safety space been reconsidered. 

“We are now seeing these new designs being adopted from a regulatory standpoint, from end-users and manufacturing companies. In the last three to four years there have been a slew of new products introduced, which is exciting. The design of our WaveCel material inside the helmet is unique and trademarked,” Madey said.

Bottlang added that it took about 18 months of R&D to reach a redesign they were happy with for commercial and industrial spaces. Designers employed thousands of 3D-printed designs. They also added chin straps, a mainstay in bicycle helmets, to keep the hard hat on a worker’s head. 

“We call it a full brim safety helmet because many workers like the old-fashioned style with the brim and protection,” Bottlang said.

Madey added that WaveCel’s managers and designers spoke with safety directors, end-users and CEOs for feedback on hard hat inadequacies in comfort, fit and safety. A tightening system in the back of the WaveCel helmet accommodates different head sizes and adjusts up and down to sit properly for a person’s vision. 

“Making helmets safer, more comfortable and introducing antirotation systems is happening in the hard hat space,” Madey said. “Frankly, it’s making the construction industry safer.”

In July 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed rulemaking to clarify that PPE for the construction industry must properly fit each employee. 

“If personal protective equipment does not fit properly, an employee may be unprotected or dangerously exposed to hazards and face tragic consequences,” said Doug Parker, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “We look forward to hearing from stakeholders on this important issue as we work together to ensure that construction workers of all genders and sizes are fitted properly with safety gear.”

Multitasking gloves 

Sometimes you need a glove that won’t inhibit dexterity, and sometimes one that is cut-resistant. Maybe another that absorbs impact or that is arc-rated (AR) and fire-resistant (FR). That’s a lot of gloves. The protective glove industry has been working to make them far more multifunctional. There’s not yet a glove that does everything, but there are ones that can handle many different tasks.

Kelly Graham is manager of innovation and optimization for Magid, Romeoville, Ill., a PPE manufacturer and distributor. “What we try to provide is standardization,” she said. “Having different gloves for each application can be confusing.” 

For Magid, developing a thinner, more comfortable glove to meet several needs is a major part of their R&D.

“It can take a little convincing that a thinner glove provides adequate protection, but you back it up with testing and a product that meets standards,” Graham said. 

Conceivably, with advances in gloves, an organization that uses five or six types could reduce that to two or three. 

“One of the biggest challenges within PPE right now is providing flame-resistant and arc-resistant fabrics that are lightweight and comfortable,” Graham said. “We are constantly working with our engineers to develop new yarns that are inherently [flame-resistant], [arc-rated] and cut-resistant. It’s trial and error as we weave new yarns and try to make them thinner and more comfortable.”

Graham explained that one way to make a thinner glove is selecting a higher knitted gauge, something knitting enthusiasts understand. Her firm then designs cut- and fire-resistant properties. Beyond standards ratings for AR/FR clothing, ANSI also addresses cut resistance for gloves.

“Ratings (for cut resistance) start at level A1 and go up to level A9. Based on the hazards you may experience in your task, the rating dictates what cut level you may need. 

“If you’re doing general material handling, moving boxes, not dealing with any sharp objects, an A1 or A2 cut level glove should suffice. If you’re dealing with sharp objects like glass or metal, you’re going to need an A8, A9 level glove. Most people probably in the electrical contractor world would fall in the A5, A6 range of gloves,” she said. 

When gloves break down

A focus on glove comfort marks another advancement. 

“Some glove fibers are naturally a little ‘hairier,’ a little itchier,” Graham said. “Also, as you wear gloves, over time those fibers will start to break down and cause irritation.” 

To counter such wear, Magid is developing alternatives to core fibers such as steel or fiberglass that are lighter, more comfortable, stronger and less likely to break down. 

“We also added strength-enhancing microparticles to an outer wrap for added cut resistance,” Graham said.

Beyond gloves, Magid is working to advance other PPE tackling heat stress and heat illness, which are big issues in the construction community.

“About four or five years ago, we launched a line of cooling towels that use an innovative technology that’s not chemically treated to supply a cooling effect. Customers also wanted the towels to be fire-resistant. Working with our engineers, we launched an FR cooling towel this past spring,” she said.

Tech meets safety 

Sensor tech is ushering in its own safety gear innovation. Often referred to as wearables, sensor tech can be “woven” into work gear or be an added accessory such as a wristband, all connecting to software that reads the sensor information. Using this past summer’s prolonged heat waves as a premise, sensors with the right software can check a worker’s heat stress. Products exist today that can measure and report a person’s heart rate, pulse, body temperature, blood pressure and more. Supervisors can be alerted to worker distress while embedded GPS can allow for quick worker location tracking.

Rogers-O’Brien Construction Co. (RO), a Dallas-based builder, partnered with Sentinel Occupational Safety Inc., Fairborn, Ohio. At three job sites, RO workers wore monitoring armbands that communicated with Sentinel’s SafeGuard software to achieve real-time health and safety risk assessment. 

“We’re pioneering a new era of worker safety,” said Todd Wynne, RO’s chief innovation officer. 

Smart PPE can also include sensors in helmets to check the body and in boots to detect falls or shocks. Safety glasses can have sensors to alert workers to dangerous terrain, feature augmented reality or conceivably pull up a safety protocol before proceeding with a task.

Now that safety is more than an afterthought, advances in PPE are supporting this change in attitude. The bottom line will always be making sure a worker comes home safe.

Header image: Improvements to the protection offered by gloves, helmets and wearable smart tech all mean a safer job site for workers. Legacy Health System’s Biomechanics Laboratory helmet impact testing. Sentinel Occupational Safety and Rogers-O’Brien Construction Co.’s biometric-monitoring armband; Magid’s impact gloves and WaveCel’s safety helmet, exterior and interior. Photo sources: Getty Images / royyimzy / WaveCel / Sentinel Occupational Safety and Rogers-O’Brien Construction / Magid / Legacy Biomechanics Laboratory

About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].

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