Smart Protective Apparel and PPE’s Role in Lone Worker Safety and HazCom

Smart Protective Apparel and PPEs Role in Lone Worker Safety and HazCom

From traditional PPE to advanced smart clothing, innovative protective gear is evolving to transform occupational safety, communication, and the overall well-being of workers.

What does hazard communication mean to you? Is it a document of existing occupational dangers that’s shared with employees? Or is it the standard set of symbols that you see on containers holding toxic substances? Both examples are correct, making up a bigger picture of effectively educating employees on the hazards they face while at work.

In the United States, chemical manufacturers and importers must evaluate the hazards of chemicals and label them appropriately according to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS), it requires hazard information to be communicated on labels and safety data sheets. In addition to proper communication, OSHA also requires employers to thoroughly train their workers to handle specific chemicals safely and properly.

Overall, strong, effective communication is vital for occupational health and safety and a safe work environment. Maintaining at least one communication channel with the lone worker can ensure that they can request help in an emergency as well as communicate important information such as their location and other details that could benefit an emergency response. Strong communication can also reduce stress with the employee worrying less about their safety and focusing more on their work.

The Evolution of Protective Gear and PPE

A significant area that can improve and complement worker communication is personal protective equipment (PPE) and protective work clothing. What is the earliest example? Depending on who you ask, it could be the masks, goggles, and body suits of plague doctors in the 16th century. Or it might be the respirators used by soldiers in WWI. Regardless, you may use some form of PPE at your job, including face masks, protective gloves, and clothing of all kinds. 

Protective occupational clothing and equipment have evolved significantly with innovative protective apparel that protects and facilitates communication amongst staff and with the employer. Rather than replacing PPE, smart protective apparel will complement it for the occupational benefit of the employee. Smart clothing is typically traditional garments that are more “intelligent” with some function or beneficial response to changes in the worker’s physical and emotional conditions as well as their stimuli from the surrounding work environment.

With hazard communication, traditional PPE can actually present some challenges for occupational safety, such as viewing and comprehension of hazard communication symbols and instructions (goggles, protective eyewear) and also limit verbal communication, resulting in an increased risk of miscommunication that could have dangerous results. Additionally, while effective for simple safety purposes, traditional PPE is fairly limited in functionality and worker protection potential. But with work clothing and apparel, PPE is also becoming lighter and more advanced.

What Smart Apparel Looks Like Now

An employee’s well-being and vital signs can be monitored with a number of portable devices and technology that they wear on their clothing while working. Smart apparel, however, is the clothing that can measure much more with much more sensor surface area. Smart clothing — or personal protective equipment and technology (PPET) — uses advanced wearable technologies like flexible sensors and paper-thin batteries that are unnoticeable to the worker wearing it. All of this technology is connected by advanced textiles and fabrics made up of conductive nanomaterials that are ultra-light and compact.

Smart clothing can monitor health metrics such as temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and sweat rate. It can also communicate messages through smart fabric that changes color and provides warnings. When integrated with advanced PPE that also employs sensors and online connection, smart protective clothing can provide more holistic, real-time safety monitoring and insightful data collection for the worker and the organization. One company, Aerochromics, has developed smart, reactive clothing that changes patterns when harmful particles are detected in the air. In a different area of safety, smart PPE can prevent occupational noise-induced hearing loss (ONIHL) in workers as part of an effective hearing conservation program at your company.

Through displays and screens on smart protective eyewear and clothing, communication of the hazards of specific chemicals can be more effectively delivered, a safer and clearer, hands-free channel for the hazard communication standard as well as other safety-related information and updates. On top of that, the OHS data collected can help prevent future accidents from occurring by detecting safety hazards early and before they injure a person.

How The People Benefit

With these advances in smart protective apparel and smart PPE, both the employees and employer benefit from better hazard communication and improved overall occupational health and safety. As you will read below, there are several major benefits that could justify an investment in this technology for your people.

  • Increased engagement with ease of use and implementation into operations.
  • Increased overall safety with reduced number of accidents and faster emergency response.
  • Reduced stress for the worker’s safety, property and machinery/equipment.
  • More time to focus on work with less intrusive, streamlined safety measures
  • Valuable safety reports and data that can be used to make improvements, preventing accidents in the future.
  • Increased consistency and communication of hazard handling instruction and storage.

How To Be Connected

Only secondarily to safety, the objective of these technologies is to keep employees connected – whether that’s the monitoring of their health or the ability to quickly request emergency help, a strong, reliable connection is key in a person’s safety when at work.

There are a number of monitoring technology options to stay connected. It can include satellite and GPS communication devices that work anywhere in the world, or it can entail the evolving technologies mentioned above. Even if it is non-verbal, the sensors that send information to a monitor keep the person connected and in communication.

Advantages and Challenges

As alluded to above, there are a number of advantages to using smart protective clothing and PPE to help protect your team. In an accident, this technology could reduce the response time if they are connected and their location is monitored. Because the technology is so small, the amount and range of OHS measurables being monitored is diverse and growing, enhancing the overall security and safety of the worker; there is a large number of safety metrics that organizations should track. Additionally, it is essential to note that this technology also is more accurate, providing better quality data to help satisfy the organization’s safety objectives.

These advancements will help usher in updates to current safety legislation, regulations and industry standards. With these advancements, all areas of work safety will benefit, including hazard communication, which will increase and, therefore, improve, creating a more reliable and secure safety network for the employees. With more research and more inventive ideas, such as toxic gas and chemical-detecting shirts, the future of smart clothing, textiles and PPE is very exciting for our safety at work.

Future Implications and Trends

Despite such challenges, smart protective clothing and equipment is – or will be – a permanent part of the OHS landscape and your workplace safety. Across multiple industries and existing workplace systems, online integrations and safety software usage is becoming a normal part of occupational safety and so it should be – it’s keeping everyone safer and more connected.

With these advancements will also come updates to current safety legislation, regulations as well as industry standards. And with these advancements, all areas of work safety will benefit including hazard communication which will increase and therefore improve, creating a more reliable and secure safety network for the employees. With more research and more inventive ideas such as toxic gas and chemical-detecting shirts, the future of smart clothing, textiles and PPE is very exciting for our safety at work.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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