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Long Term PPE Perspective

Published: 01st Mar 2012

Prometei is an initiative that builds on the lead market initiative on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) of the European Union.

This initiative was one of the action points of the PPE Conference held in Hengelo on December 1 and 2, 2008; it was set up to foster synergies in research and development in PPE and to develop an end-user innovation agenda and was politically supported by EURATEX, ESF and ETSA and funded by the participating organisations.

The Prometei process brought together the whole value chain of PPE, from end-users to trade organisations, suppliers and research centres in order to identify key social trends relevant for personal protective equipment, provide guidance for further development and to generate a more precise strategic research agenda for PPE. The research agenda was recently presented at a PPE conference organised by the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health in Saariselka (Finland), from January 24 to 26, 2012.

The initiative came into being through meetings during 2010 in Frankfurt, Paris and Ghent focusing on elements from global trends and scenarios through to technological and market issues. Further supported by extensive study of existing PPE research, as well as end user surveys and interviews, a ‘road map’ has been prepared addressing scenarios up to 2020, addressing the trends, risks and challenges of PPE. Rounding up with conclusions for both industrial participants and policy makers, the Prometei Road Map provides a guideline for the future needs of the industry.

Contextualising PPE

PPE is defined by the European Commission as: “...any device or appliance designed to be worn or held by an individual for protection against one or more health and safety hazard.”1 It is often narrowed to the protection of workers, but it addresses all individuals, hence also sport practitioners.

A first boundary is that technically PPE excludes military equipment, which is subject to specific regulations. It does, however, include clothing, of which the primary objective is to protect production processes or people against the wearer (e.g. in food industry or in medical services). Conceptually the difference between these categories is gradual rather than principled. The Prometei Group advises that all protective equipment should be integrated under one single conceptual and legal framework. A second boundary is between PPE and other measures to provide health and safety in the workplace, such as safety of equipment and safe working procedures.

PPE is considered “the last resort after other methods of protection have been considered.” In practice, sometimes this is the case, but in many instances PPE is a frequent or even constant means of protection. The Prometei Group advocates considering PPE as a theme in equal standing with production technologies, the work environment and with organisational measures. A third boundary exists between the different components of PPE and work tools.

There are different components for head protection (including ear and eye protection) and body protection (such as provided by suits, gloves and shoes). In addition, harnesses and ropes also provide protection. Other work tools and communication devices are not considered as PPE, although they can be connected or integrated and may contribute to the overall protection. Prometei recommends taking an holistic view by assessing all components with an end-user scenario. Special interest is with communication devices, as yet developed in soldier modernisation programmes.

In terms of management philosophy PPE can be approached from a ‘must have’ perspective, by which a set of risks are assumed and equipment is purchased accordingly. This approach focuses on the material aspects of PPE such as covered by norms and standards. The advantage of this approach is the low workload for HSE executives and the ease of buying off-the-shelf products. SMEs will often use this approach. This leaves the need to approach PPE within a proper risk assessment exercise.

This is most needed when risks are not classic, nor clearly covered by norms and standards. It is thus necessary to carry out a risk inventory and evaluation prior to engaging in a process of selection of PPE. This method is called SUCAM (Selection, Use, Care And Maintenance) of PPE. This process involves a higher workload for the HSE staff prior to and during the procurement process, but ensures a better selection and acceptance of PPE and a lower liability in case of accident. The workload could be reduced by developing voluntary sectoral guidelines; these shall never replace a risk assessment at company level but ease and speed up the process.

Scenarios up to 2020

Five scenarios up to 2020 were identified by the Prometei Initiative for ten end-user profiles, based on global trends for the decade. Starting with globalisation of production and specialisation of industrial work with increased automation of industrial processes, growth of semi-industrial work such as utilities, building, maintenance and repair and product oriented services.

Moreover, globalisation leads to a shift of manufacturing to regions with a younger labour reserve and energy intensive industries are shifting to sources of energy. In intermediate industries, such as chemicals and other processing industries further mechanisation and automation is to be expected. Secondly, global ageing, a multifaceted trend, is impacting on the demographics of workers as well as affecting health service provisions and creating the rise of a leisure economy. Ageing is a global development, affecting all countries except regions in Asia and Africa. The life expectancy is rising, while the number of children per capita is declining.

The third scenario, global mobility, was seen in terms of migration, labour mobility and a global rise of tourism. A growing concern is the increased low intensity risk pervasiveness such as pandemics and zoonoses (animal diseases transmittable to humans). A fourth scenario is the rise of global individualism and networking. Individualism means that work is increasingly one of the facets of life. This implies that on one hand the quality of PPE is a vector of personal dignity and on the other hand work should be carried out in conditions not affecting personal life.

Sustainable materials

Manufacturing of PPE uses a lot of material, since it concerns around 10% of all clothing and technical textiles - some four million tonnes worldwide. It is also an important user of plastics in head protection although this is not quantified. The PPE sector is an important user of polyester, polyamide, polyethylene and other polymers derived from fossil resources.

More technical demands also lead to the addition of materials such as aramides, flour based membranes and finishes (e.g. Goretex) or phosphates, again, all derived from fossil sources. Since the segment is less fashion sensitive and in many parts less demanding than for technical textiles it is an appropriate arena to develop and test alternative materials such as biopolymers (e.g. for disposable materials) and to assess the reintroduction of alternative natural fibres such as linen and hemp. It is also relevant for certain properties to develop bio-based finishes. Work has begun in developing bio-based flame retardants and breathable repellant materials. Materials mimicking nature such as lotus leaf concepts are relevant.

Plant extracts can be the basis for comfort enabling properties, e.g. in the lining of gloves and shoes. These may help to reduce the temperature, development of sweat and repress bacterial activity related to heat and sweat. PPE maintenance deepens its carbon footprint. Most energy and water use in PPE is connected to washing it. Extending the lifetime of PPE can be enabled by a better tracking and tracing of PPE. This could be done by adding tracers to PPE, RFID tags or ‘end of life’ or ‘end of service’ indicators. The University ofWuppertal has, with the research of professor Helmus, obtained a breakthrough in applying RFID tags in footwear, helmets and PPE clothing. This helps to monitor incidents and to trace the use and maintenance of PPE. Making materials stain repellant has an important impact on reducing maintenance frequency and intensity. More efficient maintenance can be obtained by alternative business models, however, in which design, manufacturing management and maintenance are contracted out as one package.


Customisation of PPE is an important trend. Bad fit is a factor which reduces acceptance for head protection and for foot protection. It is a trend with four elements. Firstly, more end-user oriented design processes, taking into account diversity in end-users, the global factory scenario. Secondly, more customisation in fit, since deficient fit is a major put off in the acceptance of PPE. Thirdly, more personal management systems of PPE with possibilities to manage, among others, personal PPE budgets and maintenance. Fourthly, more functional and aesthetic differentiation in answer to needs and identity of workers, especially with regard to workers with specific conditions and for self employed workers or small companies.

Challenges for footwear

Foot protection comes in various materials that protect from influences from the environment and vice versa. Not only is the protection of the foot important, but shoes or boots should also support the activities of the wearer. Metal insoles and toe-tops are now impeding flexibility and are a source of heat build up. Alternatives in cross-plied fabrics are still inconclusive and need to be improved, especially when it comes to protection against puncture through sharp objects. Cooling, better management of climate, reduction of bacterial activity and better understanding of the relation between friction, climate and bacterial activity is required.

Research done on sport surfaces in relation to sport shoes could be leveraged to work shoes. In order to balance protection and comfort adaptive materials need to be developed. This is mainly in relation to breathability and evacuation of heat and moisture. Silver is now used to reduce bacterial activity, but more sustainable alternatives are needed. Also of relevance is the development and application of phase changing materials and controlled release materials to improve comfort. This should be assessed very closely with the fit of protective boots, which influences the entire performance of the PPE, therefore it is suggested to customise socks as well as the boots the sock is worn in.

Thinking ahead

The Prometei Initiative concluded that compatibility and modularity between different elements of equipment should be better examined, especially at critical interfaces such as mouth-ear, ear-head, foot-body and body-hands. Also the integration of tools into PPE is of importance and the connections between PPE and environment play a role if people from different professions work in one operational theatre. Furthermore, PPE should be interoperable with tools in use and conditions of the environment. It’s possible that some functions could have a so-called de-activation sensor which steers the interaction with different other devices.

The application of this mechanism could be, for example, in the forestry industry. Industries and purchasers focus too much on specific parts or elements of PPE, whereas there should be more attention to concept design. An integrated view of the whole concept of PPE needs to be shown in standards, and be well organised within big public procurements. User oriented design starts with the involvement of the user. Offering the user of PPE additional information can support the user’s performance in a positive way, but also brings along the danger of overloading the user with information.

Therefore the data supplied with the PPE should be action oriented and needs-based to ensure situational awareness. Data which helps the user of PPE in specific situations to identify his or her location (where am I?) and the location of the danger (where is the danger?) would be useful in some situations, but not in all.

The research of professor Helmus at Wuppertal has demonstrated that RFID tags have been successfully positioned in footwear and offer information on location and on possible incidents (e.g. falling). It’s perhaps self-evident to say that where time is scarce, like in emergency situation, the speed of the data calculation and its transfer is crucial. The organisation of an information infrastructure is important. Another element is to integrate energy production for smart devices. One solution is to integrate a piezo-electric element in the sole that converts movement into electricity. This can feed smart systems or also, more simply, heating functions.


1. European Commission Directive 89/686/EEC (21 December 1989) 4

Published: 01st Mar 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Dr Michiel Scheffer