Smart PPE could prove to be a game changer for workplace safety. With the potential to deliver increased protection for workers alongside increased access to the data needed to drive decision making, the market for intelligent PPE is finally taking off. In fact, the global market for smart PPE is expected to reach USD 7.70 billion by 2027. Part of this is due to increased interest from the insurance industry. However, it is also being driven by the challenges of the COVID-19 workplace and the promise of new Industry 4.0 technologies.

What is Smart PPE?

Smart PPE is personal protective equipment that connects over the internet or Bluetooth. They will also often connect with either cloud-based analytics platforms or smartphone apps. In addition to providing the usual PPE protections, they can deliver real-time safety information and data to workers while they're on the job and to managers observing them remotely. This data can include a variety of critical measurements from medical information to ergonomics to location. Smart PPE is often able to send alerts and record audio or video as well.

Protective Clothing

Wearable smart PPE now includes everything from footwear to gloves. Sensors and active materials are integrated directly into the textiles used in the making of worker PPE. As a result, smart clothing can monitor the body temperature of workers who must work in extreme temperatures, either extreme cold or extreme heat. They can then deliver either additional heating or cooling required to keep the worker safe.

Other types of intelligent clothing-related PPE can detect hazardous gases or chemicals and measure exposure levels. Still others, such as those designed for security personnel, include heart rate sensors and geolocating capabilities. Light-emitting clothing provides visibility in dimly lit work environments or during emergencies.

Data from smart wearable PPE is shared with managers in real-time, and this includes data about impacts and other emergencies, which allows help to be dispatched immediately. Smart PPE equipped with fatigue monitors can detect microsleep and other signs of fatigue before putting a driver and the public at risk by sending a sleep deprived driver out on the road.

Many smart safety glove options will connect to a user's smartphone or tablet and provide immediate access to data sheets for chemicals to reduce risk, for example. Others integrate with gestures, allowing a worker to access information or turn on equipment with a simple hand motion. They can also be programmed to act as a swipe key, preventing workers from inadvertently accessing dangerous or hazardous areas.

Smart insoles in safety shoes or boots can detect hazardous situations, such as a slipping hazard, and then evaluate and communicate risk to the wearers. They will also perform a self-evaluation and let the worker know if there is a fault in the equipment or if the boots are not fastened properly.

Eye and Face PPE

Smart eye protection acts as the usual barrier between the worker and their environment, but it also alerts the wearer to potential hazards. Many options support hands-free work and can provide visual documentation on the hazard, risk or next steps.

Other options have a display function in the corner of the lens that can provide helpful information. They also have a camera function that allows a worker to connect with a remote expert who can see the problem or issue and guide the worker in their response.

Head Protection

The sensors embedded in smart helmets are used to help the wearer evaluate situations. For example, they can detect impending collisions and falling objects or warn the wearer if they come close to any potentially hazardous sites or equipment. In areas where workers are working alone or in remote locations, GPS tracking systems in these helmets can ensure help is sent to an exact location if it's needed.

Also related to head protection, intelligent gas masks with thermal cameras can protect firefighters and direct them away from hidden fire hazards.

Hearing Protection

Like many safety innovations, smart hearing protection was originally designed for infantry soldiers. However, it is now being sold for use by industrial workers. They serve a dual purpose and manage to enhance the wearer's hearing while also protecting them from temporary and permanent hearing damage. They can include everything from smart headsets to smart earmuffs. Many of these options will cancel out additional or surrounding noise while allowing the wearer to focus on communication. In doing so, they greatly enhance situational awareness, which can be critical on many worksites.

Barriers to Smart PPE

The COVID-19 pandemic has fostered phenomenal growth in the PPE market as companies seek to locate and stockpile the equipment they need to keep their workers safe. That, in turn, dampened interest in new technologies such as intelligent PPE, as employers simply sought to get their hands on whatever possible in order to protect their workers.

However, that may be about to change as things normalize. Smart PPE is still relatively new, though, and there are some concerns. Issues remain about how to protect worker privacy and ensure there is no breaches in confidential data. Additionally, the higher price of smart PPE can be prohibitive for some companies.

The Future of Smart PPE

Smart PPE offers some tempting rewards and potential incentives for both companies and workers. It may help to increase efficiency and productivity, and certainly enhances worker safety. Increasing interest from insurance companies may push more companies to explore the smart PPE option. As well, smart PPE is likely to get even more effective over time as the industry exploits new technologies and applications. This will make it even more of a game changer for safety professionals and workers.