Most people are familiar with the term personal protective equipment (or PPE). In particular, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, PPE shortages were widespread and gained national attention.
PPE is essential for workers on the front lines of medicine, emergency response, manufacturing, and many other fields. Good equipment protects them against on-the-job dangers even while they render essential services that keep society running.
What is often misunderstood is that PPE designs do not account for the range of body shapes and sizes of the workforce. If PPE fits poorly, it can expose a worker to danger. When you think about just how many ways each person is physically different from everyone else, you can see why a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace protective clothing isn’t good enough.
Workers who require protective clothing because of the potential for exposure to hazards need better PPE that fits appropriately. Unfortunately, introducing alternative-sized PPE into the market is not an easy task. Development is expensive, and major changes always come with risks.
However, we can take a closer look at the market influences on PPE production and distribution, and with that knowledge, it might be possible to construct a new plan that better serves the diversity of workers across the country.
Basic Supply and Demand
The primary reason that PPE isn’t more customizable across the board is supply and demand. When you get away from a one-size-fits-all model, the market dynamics change because more sizes are available. This results in less profit potential so manufacturers and investors shy away from providing proper equipment. It might prove more effective, but it makes less money.
In order to overcome this basic problem, innovation has to design around the economics of scale. If a single piece of protective clothing, for example, is going to come in a wider range of sizes, the best way to accommodate the smaller demand is with more cost-effective production. Innovative designs can’t just provide a better fit. They have to save costs somewhere in the production cycle too.
Complicated Supply Chains
We live in a world of global supply chains. That comes with complications, and those complications bear an impact on the ability to produce, distribute and purchase PPE.
Creating PPE requires many steps. Materials are sourced from different locations across the world. They are brought together at manufacturing facilities, many of which only complete part of the process. Component pieces are then shipped to new facilities all around the world for assembly. Further, there is limited information about the demand for each size, and sizing needs may differ from one country to another.
This creates many opportunities for supply chain disruption, which can further drive up PPE production and sales prices. This leads manufacturers to stick with familiar designs, and in many cases, there is safety in simplicity. In order to justify greater risk associated with better custom fits, something has to balance the equation.
One clear opportunity is designing around supply chains. Any PPE materials that can be sourced without dramatically raising base costs will help offset supply chain risks.
These problems are not easily overcome, which is why NIOSH is promoting a challenge for open innovation. The goal is to use crowdsourcing for ideas, designs and improvements to protective equipment for all workers. You can participate in the prize challenge, and your contributions might help improve work safety standards across the country and better protect people as they carry out essential services.