There was a time, a century ago, when the concept of personal protective equipment simply did not exist. However, as jobs became more complex and the need for safety become apparent, workers began demanding safety equipment to protect them on the job.
From here, personal protective equipment was born.
In the late-1880s, miners would wear hard bowler hats as a means of temporary protection from small rocks falling and hitting them in the head. These hats were often stuffed with cotton as well, to create a barrier from falling debris. From that concept, hard hats were born. Another major influence on the hard hat would be the helmets worn by soldiers in the First World War, which resemble somewhat the hard hats we wear to this very day. By 1931, workers on the Hoover Dam were voluntarily wearing hard hats developed by Edward Bullard on the army helmet design. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1933 would be the first large-scale project that would require workers to all wear hard hats as a means of protection. This was not due to a federal law, but because Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the project, wanting to make the work as safe as possible for those working beneath him on the bridge. He would also have a net, costing $130,000, put under the bridge to catch anyone that fell.
The first aluminum hard hat would be developed in 1938 and in 1953, the first injection-molded hat was created.
Fall arrest devices have been around for a number of years as well. In the 1930s, the Rose Manufacturing Company began to make safety belts and lanyards that were used by window washers in the rapidly growing skyscrapers dominating major cities in the United States. In 1959, the easy-to-use cable connector for safety belts, with shock-absorbers, was created by the same company. This concept is still used to this day to protect workers from falls.
Breathing clean air has always been important, especially with working conditions of the early 20th century being poor at best. The concept of the respirator actually dates back to the Roman Empire. Two millennium ago, animal bladders were used to protect lead miners from inhaling red oxide. Very few changes to this concept came about for some time, that is until 1854 when John Stenhouse created the charcoal gas filter that removed ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and chlorine from the air. The masks’ concept was improved upon and the first true test of the air-purifying system came about with the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector in 1916. Created by Garret A. Morgan, he attended to a call when an explosion of the Cleveland Waterworks caused dangerous gases to be released. Three teams of rescuers went in, but none came back out. Morgan and three others, using the respirator that had a hose to the ground where the clean air was, were able to go in and rescue those trapped in the building. From this point, the respirator and how it was worn began to evolve to what we know today.
Lastly, there is ear protection. Ear plugs have existed since the 19th century, but it was not until the 1930s that they were actively advertised as a means to protect one from noise while working. These ear plugs were made from wax or cotton, and were only minimally protective. It was not until 1969 that the Noise Standard legislation came in, requiring anyone working in noisy environments to have the option to wear ear protection provided by the company.
From animal bladders and wax ear plugs, our PPE has come a long way to protecting workers on the job, both from injury and death.