Smart personal protective equipment (PPE) is becoming more and more common. Such
products have been on display at trade fairs and in use for some time. Nevertheless, it is
advisable to view the market with a fair degree of scepticism. Although some good products
do already exist, smart PPE is a fast-moving area, and all participants are still learning to fully
exploit the potential of smart PPE.
What is smart PPE?
PPE, such as safety shoes, ear plugs and protective eyewear, has always been important in
protecting the wearer from one or many occupational safety and health (OSH) risks. If an
activity carried out by a person — the wearer of the PPE — involves a certain risk that cannot
be further reduced by other (collective technical or organisational) means, the use of PPE is
essential to enable that person to do their job without or with less risk of injury. PPE must
function reliably and provide a high level of protection. This principle of the hierarchy of
prevention (2) has been successfully used for a long time (3).
Of course, research and development are carried out in the field of PPE. More and more often, one sees descriptions such as ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ applied to PPE. The level of protection can be
increased by using enhanced materials or electronic components in smart PPE. Enhanced materials have new properties: knee protectors, for instance, are often inflexible and hinder normal movements; however, smart shock-absorbing material can be soft and flexible, allowing normal movement. When protection is needed, in the event of a shock, the smart material’s properties change, and the shockabsorbing effect is revealed.
In most cases, the ‘smart’ part of smart PPE is electronics. In this case, smart PPE combines
traditional PPE (e.g. a protective garment) with electronics, such as sensors, detectors, data
transfer modules, batteries, cables and other elements.
A well-known example that has already been presented at trade fairs is smart protective garments for firefighters. Various sensors are integrated into the firefighters’ garments. They measure body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and core body temperature. With such data, it is possible to assess the work capabilities of the person in question. This was not possible in the past. Other sensors observing the firefighter’s surroundings can detect toxic gases or measure temperature. In addition, information on the condition of the protective equipment after an assignment can be stored. This is very useful for assessing the type of cleaning that is required and whether or not the right level of protection is still assured. All this information can be used to optimise the level of protection provided to firefighters and increase their ability to do their job. Thus, smart PPE protects the wearer at a higher level, sometimes providing more comfort, and it can produce valuable information for care and maintenance. A classification scheme for smart PPE is proposed in Figure 1.
Smart PPE can be characterised by a certain degree of interaction with the environment or
reaction to environmental conditions. The current proposal for a definition by the European
Committee for Standardization (CEN) — the relevant European standardisation body — is as
follows: Smart PPE is ‘personal protective equipment that … exhibits an intended and
exploitable response either to changes in its surroundings/environment or to an external