How WWI Is Responsible For Modern PPE

How WWI is responsible for Modern PPE
We owe our veterans so much. They safeguarded freedoms we take for granted and profoundly shaped the world as we know it. As Remembrance Day approaches, we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

But did you know that the contributions of our veterans can not only be felt in their sacrifices for Canada’s efforts in peace and freedom, but also in the innovations they brought to the workplace?

It was these innovations that kept our veterans safe in the trenches during World War I and that later influenced modern day personal protective equipment (PPE).

The concept of PPE is a relatively recent idea. As far as the government’s priorities on worker safety in the late 19th century and early 20th century were concerned, it centered mostly on worker’s compensation. The belief was that hazards in high-risk trades such as mining and construction were unavoidable. Essentially, workers had to rely on their colleagues to not kick a hammer off of the ledge above them or on their ability to get out of the way quickly if that happened. Needless to say, injury on the job was obscenely high and the cost to employers at this time was relatively low.

Eye protection is one of the earliest forms of PPE to be adopted in the workplace. Like most safety gear, it wasn’t commonplace. However, goggles were frequently used by pilots in World War I to protect their eyes from debris at high altitudes. What worked while flying airplanes also worked when avoiding debris on the job.

A particularly fascinating story is the creation of the hardhat: It was developed by E.W. Bullard, a young American soldier, who patented the “Hard Boiled Helmet” in 1919. Originally made from steamed canvas, glue and black paint, this rigid helmet was developed for the mining industry and based on the steel helmet he wore as a soldier. Effective in protecting workers from falling blunt objects, it was quickly adopted for use in US Naval yards and in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. By 1948, Canada adopted their first standards for hardhats.

The discovery of neutralizing agents suitable for air-purifying respirators came through tragedy. During World War I, German forces deployed 168 tons of chlorine gas in the first use of chemical warfare. Over 6,000 troops fell within 10 minutes, leaving only the Canadian reserves with their makeshift respirators made from urine soaked cloths. The ammonia neutralized the chlorine while the water dissolved it, and this was the first recorded response and defense against harmful chemicals. Now respirators are commonplace protecting workers from paint fumes to dust particles.

In the modern workplace, hard hats are made of strong high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and feature a suspension that provides an extra cushion of protection; respirators are mechanically assisted with cartridges, and eye protection comes in every variety of shape and sizes. We wouldn’t necessarily have this technology if it weren’t for our returning veterans sharing the tools they relied on to keep them safe.

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