Smart PPE and wearable technology
20 July 2018
Wearable technology is the most exciting development in personal protective equipment (PPE) for many years. It is now becoming available in everyday work life, and offers the prospect of huge benefits to workers worldwide by enhancing existing safety functions. Nigel Day of uvex Safety UK looks at some of the new products coming onto the market that have the capability to transform the world of personnel protective technology.
Driven by the constant quest for improved workplace safety solutions, smart, or ‘intelligent’, PPE, with digital technologies, applications, solutions and smart sensors worn close to the body, is rapidly being developed by manufacturers and adopted by employers.
What is smart PPE?
Wearable digital technology can be defined as clothing and PPE enhanced with built-in intelligent electronic devices that advance workplace safety from head to toe and unlock unprecedented opportunities to protect people.
Vulnerable areas of the body are equipped with sensors and actuators which, when interconnected, react, interact and communicate with the wearer, imparting increased safety, protection and comfort.
Compared to traditional PPE, smart PPE’s advanced features heighten usability and boost efficiency. Smart PPE leads to a reduction in errors, and therefore the number and severity of workplace accidents and injuries, giving rise to improved productivity, performance and efficiency and consequent long-term cost savings.
Smart PPE could allow site managers to know the location of their workers and whether they are protected and safe.
It saves time and increases compliance, resulting in improved worker protection, comfort, health and safety and consequently a happier workforce.
The enriched tracking information, data and communication provided by smart PPE may result in a more profitable business. Every industry thrives on facts, figures, results and numbers, so this increased amount of data is almost manna from heaven for filling in forms for accidents, insurance, etc.
Smart PPE can identify patterns or potential dangers that could lead to injury or increased risk, and is especially important in hazardous work environments, such as mining, oil and gas, automotive and manufacturing, where worker safety is critical.
Smart safety eyewear
Intelligent eye protection delivers increased access to data and enhances communication and connection to workers – especially important in high-hazard industries.
A display in the corner of lens allows information to be visualised on the inner surface while being worn, so giving users access to sensor data.
The display can alert the wearer to hazards and provide them with documents and information. In the case of lone workers, for example, it could be invaluable for information to be provided visually, rather than audibly.
It is possible that smart safety glasses could in the future prevent people from entering a hazardous area if they were not being worn by not allowing the door to open.
Smart helmets use meta sensors to evaluate situations, providing information and significantly enhancing their protective function.
Integrated acceleration sensors can detect collisions, free falling and unexpected immobility, while others, such as those for temperature, moisture and ambient brightness, enhance communication.
The possibilities are endless. For example, there could be a chip inside a safety helmet to alert the wearer if it has been worn, or has had any major impact on it.
The chip or sensor can be programmed to do almost anything to make the wearer intrinsically safe. For example, it could provide a GPS tracking system for lone workers in environments such as big construction sites or oil refineries where there is a lot of equipment, but few people.
Helmets may also have detectors on them that warn the user with an alarm if they get within range of potentially hazardous plant and equipment.
Smart safety gloves
Near-field communication (NFC) chips can be integrated into into safety gloves, enabling users to access information via their phone or tablet.
The gloves can be customised, access to machines or the infrastructure can be regulated, and new opportunities made available in PPE supply chain management.
Chips in gloves could be programmed to bring up the data sheets for the glove when scanned by the user to show which chemicals they can safely be used with, reducing risk and allowing for better stock control.
Smart gloves could have a chip in them to ensure the worker is wearing them, or that they are wearing the right glove for use in a hazardous area.
The chip can act like a swipe card on the product, similar to those used in PPE vending machines, preventing wearers from going into areas of risk from, for example, cross contamination.
If other pieces of PPE such as boots or gloves also contain chips, the pieces talk to each other and could prevent a person entering a hazardous area if they are not wearing all the appropriate kit, preventing abuse of the system and eliminating human error.
Smart safety shoes
Intelligent safety shoes use smart insoles containing chips that can detect and evaluate hazardous situations such as the risk of slipping, alerting the wearer and enabling stress-free avoidance by other workers.
The safety-related properties of shoes are able to be determined, and movement information collected, by intelligent sensors, to actively identify potential damage and the loss of safety features. For example, the wearer could be alerted to the fact that their boots were not fastened properly, or that they were faulty.
Intelligent workwear incorporates smart gesture control, allowing the operation of devices without touching them using 3D gesture detection technology. A hand can simply be waved over the pad to switch them on and off or read information.
This prevents potential contamination and the need to remove safety gloves to control functions on devices such as smartphones, smart glasses or machines.
If this all sounds a bit ‘Star Trek’, it isn’t. Employers are increasingly requesting wearable technology and smart sensors that boost safety. Good PPE manufacturers are responding to this demand and talking to their customers, leading to greater adoption in many industries.
The possibilities and potential advantages of wearable technology really are endless and stretch as far as imagination can take them. We are still some way off some of these, but the field is rapidly advancing and continually evolving to meet the new requirements of the future working environment.
About the author
Nigel Day is Technical Support Services Manager at uvex Safety UK
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