History of PPE

Although you may think that safety wear was a recent form of protection certain types have been around a lot longer. We look at the History of PPE and how it has evolved into the workwear that we use today.

When OSHA was set up in 1970 to regulate Safety practices, PPE requirements quickly followed in 1971 setting out what was required for employee protection. These requirements for PPE are still in place today.

History of PPE: Head Protection

You could argue that first protective hats were those worn by the knights during middle ages. The evolution of the hard hat comes from military battles where headgear was worn to protect from arrows and later artillery fire.

Construction hard hats as we know them today were invented by Edward Dickinson Bullard. His son EW Bullard was involved in World War 1 and when he brought his doughboy helmet back to San Francisco his father innovated the product to welcome the “Hard-Boiled Hat” in 1919.

When the Golden Gate Bridge was being constructed in San Francisco, the chief engineer Mr Joseph B Struss who asked the Bullard company to adapt the hats for bridge construction workers. It became one of the first construction sites to have a designated hart hat zone and was a fireable offence not to wear it in this zone.

The hat shares almost the same design as hundred years ago but has evolved as the materials make it a lighter safer alternative. The hat was originally made from steel, then it was the turn of aluminium, fibreglass and now hard hats are made with high-density polyethylene.

The unique design of hard hats means they are made of a suspension system. The outer layer takes the brunt of the force by falling objects and the inner suspension section spreads the force of the impact.

Innovations with hard hats have meant that there are now hats available for add on accessories like cameras, lights, ear defenders and face shields.

History of PPE: High Visibility Clothing

During the 1930’s American, Bob Switzer invented a high fluorescent paint after a lay off caused by an industrial accident. Bob then applied the paint to his wife’s wedding dress creating the very first item of hi-vis clothing. The paint was then used by the US military during the Second World War.

High visibility jackets were first trialled by British Railway workers in Glasgow during 1964. The orange coloured jackets were referred to as ‘fireflies’. The colour of the clothing enabled train drivers to see workers up to half a mile away. After the trial, British Rail issued the jackets to all rail side workers. This led the way for high visibility workwear being introduced into other areas where transportation was involved, or poor visibility affected the workers.

History of Hearing Protection

Modern-day hearing protection stems from the World Wars of the last century. Gunfire and grenades caused huge amounts of hearing damage during the first World War. There was a resistance to using hearing protection as the science behind noise and hearing loss was still unclear. A study in the 1940s by the US military concluded that anybody in the vicinity of gunfire should use ear protection. This was recommended not required.

History of Hand Protection

Going back to the Knights of the middle ages we can again see that there was protection for hand in the form of metal mesh gloves. In fact, metal mesh gloves are available today for some industrial services.

As material technology was evolving in the 1970’s Nitty Gritty Gloves were introduced to the market. This was the breakthrough that was needed to pave the way for employee hand protection.

As technology progressed into the 1980’s gloves were becoming available for task-specific jobs. Seamless knitted gloves that could be dipped into various materials offering further protection became available.

The industry standard of hand protection at present is ANSI/ISEA 105-2016, this is the 4th revision of the standard that initially. Cut-resistant gloves are designed to protect hands from direct contact with sharp items such as glass, metal, ceramics and other materials. 

History of Eye Protection

Shatterproof glass was inadvertently invented when a French scientist was ascending a ladder and accidentally knocked a glass flask from a shelf in 1903. The glass shattered but instead of splitting into lots of pieces it held firm in almost the same shape. The scientist, Edouard Benedictus, who was bemused with what had happened asked his assistant what had been in the flask. The answer was cellulose nitrate that had evaporated and left a film.

After reading about drivers getting injured from Windscreen damage Benedictus invented the first piece of safety glass called Triplex.

The first use of safety glass on a mass scale was during World War I when the lenses of gas masks were fitted. When the safety glass in the masks were put to test in battle conditions and held up, Henry Ford began installing the glass in Ford cars during 1919.

In 1909 the Julius King Optical company developed the first safety goggle after concerns about the number of industrial eye injuries. The goggles were called SANIGLAS

In the 1930s and 1940s goggles were designed for Furnace workers and melters. These goggles were large and unsightly.

When ANSI introduced eye protection standards in 1979 they allowed the design of the eyewear to be altered as long as they passed speed and high impact tests. These saw smaller fashionable items come to market.

As the technology has evolved anti-fog coatings are being applied to safety wear to eliminate restrictive sight.


From as early as medieval time, we have looked to protect ourselves from injury by using forms of clothing designed specifically for the test. We have the brains of inventors and innovators to thank for helping keep us safe. We can look at the history of PPE to guide us to the future.

Modern PPE is crucial in personal protection and with strict testing and data monitoring as well as technological advances in each area we can be hopeful that we can reduce the chances of getting injured in hazardous conditions.

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