PPEs have been used across industries for a number of decades now. So what’s changed? The coronavirus pandemic has provided some answers…

In these uncertain and gloomy times times we are living in, we have been reminded of 3 certainties in life (at least for the next few months!) – death, taxes and PPE. PPEs, better known as personal protective equipment, have become the absolute necessity in the current environment of COVID-19. These kits have turned skeptics into believers, although not all of them, and has prepared us for post-COVID life, or as we call it, ‘The New Normal’. PPEs have found usage in almost all of the industries, with the most obvious being healthcare. It’s not that PPEs have just been introduced in industrial applications though; every company, especially in the manufacturing, chemicals, and oil and gas sectors, has to abide by certain safety norms, failing which their licence to operate can be revoked. Even on television, you might have seen the manufacturing of food and beverages, or chemicals, and the level of protection and safety that has been integrated through the use of protective equipment in these processes. 

So what exactly is PPE? According to the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), it is the equipment worn to minimize the exposure to various workplace hazards or accidents that can cause grave injuries or illnesses. These may result due to different aspects such as radiological, chemical, mechanical, physical or electrical, among others. Items such as safety glasses and shoes, gloves, earmuffs, coveralls, vests and full body suits, hard hats, and respirators, are some of the most crucial PPE across every industry. They come under a number of branches such as head and scalp protection, respiratory protection, eye protection, hearing protection, and body protection, among others. Of course, the way of manufacturing and the technology utilized in order to prepare these equipment has undergoing drastic changes through the years. Here, we will see the importance of PPEs in major domains such as healthcare, food and beverage, oil and gas, and manufacturing industries.

  • PPEs in Healthcare: 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even a layman has come to know the importance of PPE in healthcare. With the pandemic being highly contagious, the first line of response, i.e., the healthcare staff, has had to don protective equipment 24/7. Some of the most common PPE in this area include gowns, full body suits, face shields, face masks, and respirators. The protection offered may vary based on the use of the equipment, such as healthcare gowns, which offer protection ranging from Level 1 (lowest) to level 4 (highest). The demand for these during the peak of the pandemic (the period between March and May) was so high that manufacturers had to double down on their production, as well as team up with other companies in order to address the demands globally. 

Conventionally, textiles and materials used to for making these equipment may absorb bacteria and viruses, which can result in an extremely risky situation not only for the healthcare worker in question but also to other staff and patients. The need of the hour is to offer better protection, while also allowing its safe reuse. With this in mind, a team at the University of Pittsburgh recently developed a textile coating that can be washed or scrubbed without diminishing its repellent ability. Conventional body PPE are only good for one-time use, after which they need to be disposed quickly in order to prevent contact from the bacteria or virus. One-time use also puts a lot of strain on the available resources, which causes shortage in supply. Respirators have also been the life and limb in healthcare institutions, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. These are generally composed of 4-5 layers of nonwoven fabric, and contain electret filters that can help trap or remove harmful bacteria or micro-organism before coming in contact with the person. 

  • PPE in Oil and Gas Industry: 

The oil and gas sector consists of numerous risky environments, and failure of any operation, or a lapse in concentration from a worker, may prove to be the difference between life or death. As such, the industry has implemented strict norms to address worker safety. The protective equipment required in this industry mainly pertain to eye protection, hand and foot protection, hearing protection, and flame-resistant clothing. 

A number of chemicals and compounds are used to prepare safety equipment, but none of them are effective against every type of chemical or contaminant that the workers come into contact with. Gloves are made out of neoprene, nitrile, rubber and vinyl, leather or canvas, among others, while boots are prepared out of neoprene or nitrile and help in protection against petroleum or chemical products. Materials used to prepare clothing in this regard have to be stretchable in order to allow for better worker motion and movements. Companies such as Arville and DuPont have launched a range of products in this regard, such as flame retardants and petro-chemical suits.

  • PPE in the Manufacturing Sector: 

The manufacturing industry comprises of a vast range of products, ranging from small nuts and bolts, to heavy vehicles and aircrafts. This industry, in a similar manner to the oil and gas sector, has imposed strict safety regulations for all workers, which include the use of masks, gloves, and resistive body suits. The COVID-19 outbreak caused many industries to shut down by the beginning of March around the globe. However, severe economic implications have necessitated a return to work in this sector, which has led to organizations introducing even stricter regulations in terms of protecting workers from getting infected. Besides social distancing, most of these companies have necessitated the presence of face masks, sanitizers and gloves at all times, in order to minimize the chances of contracting the disease. Economies have encouraged their textile industries to increase mass production of these equipment, in order to avoid any kind of shortage. Just for an example, masks making use of fibre-grade polypropylene have seen a drastic increase in demand, with the month of February seeing China produce a 150 million masks, as opposed to just 20 million the previous year.

  • PPE in the Food and Beverage Sector: 

The food and beverage industry deals with a number of chemicals in products, which are highly sensitive to contamination. Moreover, these products are heavily tested by food inspectors to determine their purity and authenticity, which makes it extremely crucial for food and beverage manufacturers to take care that no external matter or particulate gets introduced in the contents of their product. Most of the PPE in this sector involves the use of gloves, masks, face shields and gowns. Health products have witnessed a drastic increase in demand during the pandemic, which necessitates the manufacturer to take extreme precaution during production processes.

This, in a nutshell, is how PPEs are utilized, and why they are utilized in various major industries. With the pandemic expected to continue its global rampage for at least a few more months, industries are not inclined to let their guards down, and are instead expected to double down on workers’ safety. As such, the PPE, and the textile industry at large, are expected to greatly contribute and profit in this scenario.