Whilst I am eager to explore a host of subject matter for the purpose of compiling an informative yet interesting article, as well as learning something myself along the way, the topic Protective Clothing is rather overwhelming when one considers where to start…

A broad spectrum topic that conjures many different thoughts and views, my personal opinion is to tackle this starting with a couple of stories from the beginning… the origin, how did protective clothing, now known more commonly as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) come to hold its own and become one of the most lucrative supply chains in industry as we know it today? Following this, and a few tales through history, I will visit a few later day discoveries in terms of PPE, as well as a couple of experiences on my home turf.

Stories originate from all over the world that shed a little light on how it has become such a significant role player across all industries in terms of worker health and safety.

Past and prejudice

The ‘rush’ for blue jeans

Transport yourself back to the 1850s, the American Goldrush. Throngs of hopeful prospectors flocking to California to claim their slice of the fortune. Levi Strauss was no different in that he saw a potential fortune looming and joined his brother selling dry goods and materials from a wholesale store in San Francisco.

By the early 1870s, it is perhaps fair to assume that men in general who had taken up the occupation of full-time prospecting were tired of their clothing not holding up against the harsh pursuit of gold seeking. (An assumption of my own is that this was aggravated by the fact many of the men were not accompanied by their wives or were young and single and probably missed the comforts of home in the form of female assistance in the stitching and donning category!!)

One particularly frustrated gentleman approached a Nevada based Tailor, a Mr Jacob Davis and requested a harder working, more sturdy pair of work pants. Mr Davis was well acquainted with hard working items as his business churned out many wagon covers and horse blankets to meet with the demand of the times. He approached Mr Strauss (from whom he had previously procured material and cloth) and discussed the matter which resulted in a partnership and the birth in 1873 of the “Waist Overalls” later known as blue jeans. Patented shortly after as their jeans had incorporated metal rivets into the weaker parts of the garment such as pockets and fly seams to ensure they met the grade; the rest is history.

“following a request for a harder working, more sturdy pair of trousers, came the birth in 1873 of the “Waist Overalls” later known as blue jeans”


Another interesting anecdote is that of the humble Spat.

Originally known as Spatterdashes, this item of protective clothing can be traced back to the military in 18th century England. Traditionally, they were worn to protect the boots and socks of officers against the hazards of the terrain (mud and rain).

Interestingly, spats later grew into quite the fashion accessory for privileged society. Early in the 20th century, spats became widely worn by men and women in Europe and America.

Somewhat the unsung hero of PPE, spats are mostly commonly used in foundries or the metal industry to protect feet or ankles from hazards related to metal or steel production and fabrication.

Basically, spats in industry are flexible leather covering that either tie, press-stud or buckle around the safety boot. They add an additional layer of protection to the wearer against hot metal sparks or debris that may emanate as a result of a process i.e. welding. Obviously, the wearer is the prominent concern, but spats do prolong the life of more expensive PPE such as the safety boot.

There are many variations of spats, dependant on requirements and of course, cost. Although spats may appear a somewhat antiquated form of protection, they persist to prove their worth in guarding against random sparks and hot debris that may otherwise travel to even beneath a booted foot and result in serious burns.

Burns to the feet are problematic as the healing process is hindered by layers of socks and shoes. Unlike burns to the arm or other less closeted parts of the anatomy, burns to the feet take longer to heal as they are not generally exposed to fresh air for long periods at a time. In addition, feet are our body’s work horses as many of us are on them for extended hours – this obviously must cease if one is attempting to heal a wound on a foot.

All the more reason to wear spats, in that prevention is better than the cure.

To the future and beyond

Lord of the Rings

It would be fair to say that this section is a tad off-topic; however, it is such a revolutionary concept that has buckets of potential in changing things throughout industry that I will risk the rebut!

Seeped in culture and tradition for a surprisingly large sector of humanity is the practise of exchanging rings when one is wed. Promises and vows are symbolically concreted through this ritual whilst family and friends hold witness to the oaths undertaken. How then, is it possible that a custom relished by so many can be torn apart by a simple safety instruction that completely forbids the wearing of jewellery whilst operating machinery? To make matters worse, often, simply the task of manual handling can be viewed as a higher risk activity where jewellery is involved. For many, this will stretch an entire workday and the idea of being without their wedding band for this duration does not rest easily with most.

The motive behind this instruction is understood and agreed with by the majority. An error made by either man or machine could lead to severe consequences. A simple wedding band caught by rotating machine of any description will lead to injury that may otherwise have been less severe.   The simple fact of the matter is that the risk for injury increases when jewellery is thrown into the mix.  Through the wearing of such, the fact that it may be protruding or even the fact that the jewellery is made from conductive metals can lead to dire consequences such as being “pulled into” “caught by” or even burned and electrocuted.

“obviously, the wearer is the prominent concern, but spats do prolong the life of more expensive PPE such as the safety boot”

All Hail… the silicone ring!!

I am led to believe that the purpose of this durable, yet inobtrusive love symbol of choice was not originally aimed at the industrial market but rather at the sports and fitness men and women amongst us. Light and flexible, this ring would perform under stress and momentum by hopefully breaking loose and its more lenient raw material would not have the harsh impact on the human finger as its traditional metal counterpart by cutting through flesh like a knife through butter. Obviously, the hazard of wearing any wedding ring has not disappeared into a puff of smoke however logic (and a few articles I have read) dictate that the silicone substitute is a safer option. To sweeten the deal, the rings are affordable and available in a variety of colours and designs. The challenge on hand now, is convincing work forces to take the plunge and make the shift.

Reflect your values   

Used in many areas of industry, by being dipped in a neon colour, and throwing strips of reflective tape into the design, the reflective vest remains an economic option for increasing one’s visibility.

Whether on a construction site or in a workshop filled with activity, the reflective vest still holds its own in ensuring that you are noticed… and this for the right reason!

Throughout my work experience in manufacturing, we have often utilised these animated waistcoats for clients and visitors to the premises as part of our responsibility to keep them safe through increased visibility for the duration of their visit. In addition, they are a handy form of PPE for management or office personnel who spend short amounts of time in the environment and want to ensure they are seen in case of a hidden hazard.

Interestingly, I was recently privy to an approach where these vests were utilised to the full advantage of the company. As mentioned above, visitors and clients are often the recipients of these vests. What better way to flaunt the Company’s vision and values to prospective clients than to print this information on the back of these vests? This transforms the humble reflective vest into a dual-purpose garment, keeping the client safe as well as promoting your company’s image through exhibiting your values. Surely this initiative is something on which prospective clients cannot turn their backs!!

Hot under the collar

For many Companies across the globe, when a safety target is obtained, it is the norm to celebrate this achievement with a gift or token to keep the momentum going and to observe the importance of the accomplishment. Our Company is no different and, in our environment, there are few gifts that are better well received than the humble T-Shirt.

Company branded, and with the particular accomplishment well publicised on the front, back or both, employees like to incorporate these mementos into part of their daily work wear. Easy to wear underneath an overall jacket, they remain a popular choice.

On one such celebratory occasion it was considered a good idea to issue a golf shirt, for a smarter look rather than a plain necked T-shirt.

For this reason, I found it somewhat strange when our artisan machinists were issued with the T-shirts yet failed to wear them.

The fabrication personnel appeared to be delighted with the shirts and were noted to be wearing them on a regular basis. What then was the problem with machinists?

Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I confronted one of the team to discover a reason that I had never considered.

Due to the scale and design of the rotating machinery in our place of work (horizontal and vertical bores), it is not uncommon for overall jackets not to be worn for the duration of a shift. The design or requirement of the job will dictate when it may be required as often, due to the operational demands, the machinist is located a distance from metal shavings during the cutting process.  However, there are obviously times when hot metal shavings are a serious concern and then, t-shirts with collars are not practical. If a hot shaving does manage to make its way onto the neck area, it would be trapped by a collar rather than a plain T-where the shaving would most likely just pass by.

In short, it is important to consider all possibilities whenever clothing is issued that will form part of daily workwear, regardless of it being an extra or not.

In the hood

In manufacturing, specialised grinding activities are an important part of the process. As a specific skill set, select employees are dedicated to the task of grinding as a full-time occupation.

Often in the workplace, attention and resources focus on eye protection as a priority (and rightly so) when grinding is involved.  This for the obvious reason that eyes are under constant threat from injury due to the obvious hazards being generated namely dust, debris, and sparks.  This without even touching on the consequences in a case where a grinding disc shatters……..  There are however additional areas of the body that are constantly in the line if fire during this operation….

Nonchalantly referred to at our place of work as a ‘green hoodie’ (not sure why as they come in a range of colours), this garment plays a pivotal role in protecting grinding employees. The correct name for this PPE is a grinding hood.  This garment is made from a durable cotton material and slips over one’s head, somewhat similar to a balaclava.  It has a cord treaded through the circumference of the face area to enable adjustments.  This hood protects grinding employees from sparks and flying debris.  Often these sparks are hot and can cause burns to the face and neck area.  With the collar extending to approximately halfway down the chest area, these hoods are critical in ensuring protection to the employee whilst grinding.  Donned under a full-face goggle and attachable face shield, one can rest assured that the protection offered to the eyes, face and neck has been adequately considered.

Reality in the hierarchy

PPE is the last line of defence in terms of the hierarchy of controls.  This being said, in reality there are still all too often tasks and circumstances that rely on PPE being at the forefront of protection. It is therefore important to ensure that whatever is being issued to wear during working hours is given due consideration as to the level of protection and application requirements, and balancing all of this with economics and comfort.