The History of Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an all-encompassing term that includes gear worn by firefighters, soldiers, chemists, factory workers, miners, construction workers and police officers (among others), who wear in order for them to safely do their job or operate in a certain capacity safely. In theory, every time a motorcyclist dons a motorcycle helmet, he or she is putting on personal protective gear. The two major industries utilizing personal protective gear are the military and many employment industries.

There is personal protective equipment which protects the individual from physical harm, such as blows to the body, bullets or headgear that prevents damage due to falling objects. There is respiratory personal protective equipment such as face masks and respirators, used to prevent exposure to substances like asbestos and dust or from pathogens such as anthrax and other pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Protective equipment can also extend to protective eyewear that can be used to protect the eyes from chemical splashes or solid objects, like dust particles. Ear protection also qualifies as PPE as does latex gloves, used in the scientific and medical industry to provide sterile exposure to patients or to keep pathogens from spreading via the hands.

In this class, we will discuss personal protective equipment, including how it works, what it is intended to do and, in some cases, how it evolved to become an integral part of how many individuals do their jobs. We will also discuss the influence of OSHA (THE OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION) in the evolution of personal protective equipment in the workplace.


In actuality, the history of personal protective equipment dates as far back as ancient times, when soldiers wore protective headgear, face gear and body armor in order to fight their enemies without being killed themselves. Much of the gear used by these soldiers was very heavy so that, if a soldier fell off his horse, for example, he couldn't have the strength to get back on without help. Nevertheless, such ironclad personal protective gear helped many an army get a stronghold over their enemies.

In nonmilitary settings, people have used personal protective equipment from at least as far back as the Middle Ages when blacksmiths wore protective hand gear and aprons or shields to keep from being burned by the molten metal they were working with. Head gear such as hard hats protected some factory workers, miners and construction workers from objects falling on an individual's head. In many cases, the use of such PPE was considered optional and there weren't mandatory regulations for workers' protection until the advent of the Occupational Safety and health Administration, which stemmed from the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 heralded a new era in the history of public efforts to protect workers from injury on the job. The Act established, for the first time, a nationwide, US federal program designed to protect nearly the entire work force from job-related injury, illness and death. At the time, the Secretary of Labor, James Hodgson, who had helped develop the law, said it was "the most significant legislative achievement" for workers in a decade. His first step was to establish OSHA as part of the Labor Department of the US Government, effective on April 28, 1971. This new agency was given the very difficult task of creating a program from scratch that would meet the legislative intent of the Act. A portion of the work of OSHA (besides investigating and preventing work-related accidents, among other things) was to define the appropriate personal protective equipment for every job description a company could have. Advances in safety equipment have come through OSHA and, in some cases, by industries or individuals themselves which responded to a need to keep workers safe.


An example of the evolution of PPE can be found in the firefighting industry. The incidence of fire in dwellings dates back as far as such dwellings have existed throughout time. As early as the 1600s, firefighters dealt with the heat, fire and smoke without the use of modern technology. Structures often burned to the ground because firefighters couldn't enter a structure in the everyday clothing they wore.

The first fire helmet had a high crown and broad brim and was invented by Jacobus Turck in the 1730s. The helmet was made of leather. A more modern-looking helmet was created in 1836 by Henry T. Gratacap. It was a reinforced, dome-shaped leather helmet with a front shield and a brim that rolled to a long back tail. At around the same time, the firefighter got a uniform, made from wool or cotton, underneath which was a wool shirt that was always colored red. Such firefighters also wore leather boots. The combination prevented some injury due to falling debris and the heat.

Eventually, rubber was more commonly in use and firefighters protected themselves around the 1930s with rubber slickers and rubber boots, which kept the firefighter dry from the water he or she was pouring on the fire.

Respiratory protection was minimal until the nineteenth century. Stories are told of firefighters growing long beards and then flipping them up after soaking them with water. The firefighter bit on the beard and it protected his nose from soot and smoke. In 1825, an Italian scientist by the name of Giovanni Aldini tried to design a mask that provided protection against both the heat and smoky air. Another man, a miner, invented a filter mask in wide use in the US and Europe for protection against soot and smoke. Later, there were attempts to make a helmet that had a hose attached which pumped in fresh air.

The very first self-contained breathing apparatus was designed in 1863. It involved putting two canvas bags together which were lined with rubber. The airtight sack was worn on the firefighters back and two rubber hoses were connected to a mouthpiece where the firefighter could breathe in fresh air. Firefighters of the day also wore goggles, a leather hood, a nose clamp and a whistle. The gear was called "bunker gear" or "turn out gear" indicating the bunks the firefighters "turned out" of when the fire alarm was called.

During and after WWI and WWII, there was steady progress made in the development of firefighter's PPE. During those times, they often wore long rubber boots, long rubber trench coats and the traditional firefighting helmet. The boots were often above the level of the firefighter's knees.

Standards were eventually developed for firefighters' PPE after WWII. As part of the evolution of the PPE, the Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Fighting was developed in 1971. Those developing the Standard wanted a three-layer flame resistant coat for firefighters. The outer shell was resistant to temperatures at up to 500 degrees; the middle layer prevented the firefighter from being soaked, and the inner protected the wearer from heat by means of convection, conduction and radiation. A steel shank and toe were required for all firefighting boots. In 1945, breathing devices similar to those used in the aviation industry at high altitudes were recommended for firefighters. In 1984, turnout gear included pants with suspenders and a coat consisting of black cotton material.
The PASS Device was invented in 1982 and was an audible alarm that went off when a firefighter was motionless or was running out of air. It was during this time that fabrics like Nomex® and Kevlar® were invented in order to form the outer shell of firefighter's coats and pants.
Headgear and Footwear


One of the first things one thinks of with the word "headgear" as personal protective equipment is the hard hat. The first company to create hard hats was the Bullard Manufacturing Company, which first began manufacturing industrial head protection in the late 1800s. Prior to that time, hard hats and protective headgear did not exist. Even fifty years ago, protective headgear as considered optional for workers.

Established in 1898, Bullard sold primarily to miners. The hat was similar to a baseball cap and was made out of hard leather with a shellac brim. The sales of hats continued past WWI at which time the hat was called the "hard-boiled hat" because of the use of steam in the manufacturing process. The Hard Boiled Hat was patented in 1919 and was made out of steamed canvas, glue and black paint.

The first designated hard hat area was created at the time of the building of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge. It was created due to the presence of multiple falling rivets from the bridge which had the potential to injure workers.

In 1938, Bullard designed and created the first aluminum hard hat, considered light weight and extremely durable. The major drawback of aluminum hard hats was that such a hat was a great conductor of electricity.

A heat-resistant fiberglass hard hat was created in the 1940's; thermoplastics replaced the more expensive hard hat in the 1950's and 60's. Thermoplastics were injected into a mold to produce a molded hard hat.

The modern-day standard hard hat was designed in 1982. It was created because prior versions of hard hats didn't have adequate suspension. One of the most recent hard hats out of Bullard was named the 3000 R and was made from polyethylene plastic. It was lightweight, durable, moldable and non-conductive to electricity. It became the predecessor to the C30 or the standard yellow hard hat one sees at construction zones. The newest hard hats are vented as the original ones were declared to be too hot and uncomfortable.

Firefighting helmets were initially made from thick leather. They, too, evolved to become helmets of a very light weight at 25 ounces. Such helmets offer a crown pad, a soft replaceable vinyl brow pad and a limited rear brim, which limits head movement to a lesser degree than the original brimmed hats.


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Protective headgear is an item worn by an individual which provides protection to the wearer's head or part of their head. It may or may not provide facial protection. They are designed to protect an individual from any one of the following hazards:

· Physical danger

· Environmental danger

· Chemical hazard

· Biological hazard

· Thermal danger

· Electrical hazards

The primary uses of PPE headgear in the industrial world is against physical and electrical hazards.

The basic form of head protection in the industrial world is the helmet. It consists of:

· An outer shell

· Suspension which absorbs energy within the shell. It consists of crown straps and protective padding which help the wearer in the event of a falling object or other physical trauma.

· A harness which secures the helmet to the wearer. A harness can include a headband that fits the helmet to the wearer's head, a sweatband, chin straps or nape straps.

A helmet may have as an additional accessory a special bracket for lights, such as in the mining and some construction industries, a face shield or other protective eyewear, such as is seen in firefighter's helmets and materials designed to enhance the visibility of the wearer. This can be nothing more than a reflective piece that keeps a highway construction wearer visible.

Common examples of a hard hat include:

· The standard hard hat that consists of a hard shell and a front protective brim

· A full, wide brimmed hard hat that contains a brim all the way around

· A firefighter hard hat that contains a front brim, a face shield on the front and a rear shield on the back that protects against the possibility of ear or neck trauma

According to ANSI Z89.1, there are two types of hard hat or helmet. Type 1 includes helmets designed to reduce the force of an impact only on the top of the head. Type 2 helmets include those designed to reduce the force of a blow that may be received off center or to the top of the head. Electrical classes of helmets include Class G (General) which are designed to reduce the danger of a low voltage exposure, Class E (Electrical), which are intended to reduce the danger of a high voltage exposure and Class C (conductive), which are not intended to protect against any electrical exposure.

Helmets are generally made of hard plastic materials and composites. The usual materials with which helmets are currently made are:

· Nylon

· High density polyurethane

· Fiberglass

· Vulcanized rubber

· Polycarbonate

· Aluminum

The visors, if attached, are made from Nylon, Lexan, Steel mesh or materials which are specially godl-coated against the hazards of radiant heat. Some of the materials from which helmets are made are themselves heat and flame resistant.


There is archaeological and anthropological data that indicate some form of protective footwear existed as far back as 30,000 years ago in Western Eurasia. Researchers examined the toes of upper Paleolithic humans and discovered evidence that the feet received some form of protective footwear during the wearer's lifetime. The footwear itself, however, has not survived from antiquity. It was around this time, however, that the feet bones of ancient man changed so that the strength of the first through fourth toes was less strong and more protected. It was deduced that some form of protective footwear prevented the overgrowth of those toes during prolonged walking.

Personal protective equipment for the feet in the industrial area did not exist until the late 1800s. Boots were reinforced with steel and were made from a stiff leather. Boots today protect the wearer from the following hazards:

· Physical trauma

· Chemical injury

· Biological exposure

· Thermal injury

· Electrical trauma

· Radiation exposure

PPE for the foot can include protective shoes, boots, overshoes or overboots, shoe or boot covers, metatarsal footwear and those designed for toe protection, such as toe caps.

The different types of protective footwear include the steel-toed shoe, the steel-toed boot with a steel toe and stud posts, rubber work boots which can go as high as the hips and thighs and the rubber overboot, which does not have a steel toe or cap. Most PPE footwear is made from leather or rubber but there can be paper shoe covers generally used against biological hazards. Metatarsal footwear is designed to protect the wearer's metatarsal area from the hazards of prolonged standing in the workplace. Overall, PPE footwear is designed with enough traction to prevent slippage in slippery areas and are protected against the abrasion of prolonged use.

PPE footwear can be designed also to protect an individual from extreme heat or cold through the use of insulation, barrier protection to keep the wearer safe from penetrating liquids and extra comfort through materials that absorb sweat and provide cushioning.

Protective hardware incorporated into PPE protective footwear include any one of the following items:

· Interior toe caps made of steel or other strong material

· Metatarsal plates to protect the metatarsal area from compression

· Puncture-resistant midsole plates to keep penetrating items from the bottom of the foot

· Ladder shanks that keep a boot sole from folding over on narrow ladder steps