What is Smart PPE? The Future of Worker Safety
This article is part of our Back To Basics series, which highlights fundamental principles of environmental, health, and safety management. The series is written for EHS professionals new to this industry, as well as experienced pros who want to keep their skills fresh.
If you own a smartwatch or FitBit, you already know that "smart" technology can provide powerful insights into your health and performance.
Now, smart technology is being integrated into personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to reduce costs, prevent injuries, and improve worker productivity. There's no doubt that more smart PPE and wearable devices will be popping up this year.
But let's take a step back. You might have never seen a smart helmet before. You might not know what smart PPE is, or why it matters. We’re here to answer all your questions about these gadgets:
What is smart PPE?
Smart PPE, or smart wearable systems, refers to PPE that connects to the internet and other devices like software or tablets to deliver real-time safety information. You can think of it as PPE that not only minimizes exposure to hazards, but also collects data, sends notifications, and automatically adjusts to internal and external conditions.
What can smart PPE do?
With smart PPE, the possibilities are endless. Here are just a few examples of potential applications:
- Smart communication devices like helmets, ear muffs, and face masks can aid communication in loud or low-visibility environments
- Smart cooling and heating elements can respond to body and external temperatures to keep the wearer safe
- Active PPE like smart lockout/tagout and laser-enabled emergency stop devices can prevent equipment related injuries
- Light-emitting garments like safety vests can provide high visibility
- Environmental sensors embedded in clothing can monitor gas, chemical, heat, sound, UV, impact, etc. and alert supervisors if workers are in trouble
How does smart PPE work?
Most smart PPE connects to other devices via Bluetooth. Through this connection, the PPE can provide real-time alerts and gather data.
In many cases, smart PPE devices can be connected to an EHS software solution like Perillon to make data collection and analysis even easier.
How big is the market for smart PPE?
According to market research conducted by Fortune Business Insights, smart PPE witnessed a surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. Going forward, the global smart PPE technology market technology market is projected to grow from $3.13 billion in 2021 to $9.05 billion in 2028.
Who's using smart PPE?
In 2020, the healthcare and medical sector made up 23% of smart PPE applications. However, the industrial sector is expected to drive the majority of the predicted growth in the smart PPE market.
Mining, oil and gas, manufacturing, and transportation are a few of the industries where the smart PPE trend has already caught on. For example, smart location devices are popping up in the mining industry to keep tabs on miners' locations. Gas masks with thermal cameras are helping protect firefighters. And fatigue monitors are detecting 'micro-sleeps' before drowsy driving puts drivers at risk.
The applications for this type of technology are promising. But like any new technology, the adoption of smart PPE has been fraught with challenges.
What are some of the downsides of smart PPE?
With all new technology, there's a steep learning curve. But when a miner or firefighter's life depends on a smart wearable device, it needs to work properly every time. Unfortunately, there are no current minimum requirements for device performance, so backup may be necessary.
There's also the issue of keeping sensitive personal information secure. In Europe, for example, companies need to consider compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Fortunately, many PPE makers have already taken steps to protect workers’ personal information; for example, by randomizing trend information that is sent to health and safety departments for analysis.
Right now, the price of smart PPE devices is prohibitive for many smaller companies. For instance, a typical hardhat costs somewhere between $10-50. Microsoft and Trimble’s mixed reality hardhat costs around $5,000.
What is the future of smart PPE?
Developments in smart PPE are promising. Smart helmets, hearing protection, environmental monitoring garments, and light-emitting high-visibility vests have the potential to reduce costs, prevent injuries, and improve worker productivity.
As these technologies become more mainstream, we can anticipate that many of the current problems with reliability and data privacy will be solved. More widespread adoption could also drive competition and bring down prices, making it more affordable for companies of all sizes to take advantage of this new technology.
Whether or not smart PPE is widely adopted depends on corporate consumers. But one thing is for sure: EHS technology is always evolving, and it's important to keep up.
Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and was updated in October 2022 for freshness, comprehensiveness, and clarity.