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PPE of yesterday, today and tomorrow

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Records have shown that rail workers have equipped themselves with personal protective equipment (PPE) since the 19th century. As industry safety practices have been developed, so has the look and quality of protective clothing.

In a booklet titled ‘The Safety Movement’, which was produced by Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1914, the company advised its 80,000 employees to wear veil respirators while working at grindstones and scrubbing water tanks and to wear goggles when using workshop machinery. The PPE, sometimes provided by the employer but other times improvised by the worker, was basic, as history lecturer Mike Esbester, of the University of Portsmouth, explained.

“You get things such as goggles, which, in their early incarnations – variants were around in the 1880s and 1890s, possibly earlier – were uncomfortable, they tend to fog up and restrict the view because, as well as the glass plate front, they tend to have a gauze around the side.

A grindstone worker wearing a veil respirator. Image taken from GWRs 1914 booklet The Safety Movement. Photo: Mike Esbester, 'Railway Work, Life & Death' project.
A grindstone worker wearing a veil respirator. Image taken from GWR’s 1914 booklet ‘The Safety Movement’. Photo: Mike Esbester, ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project.

“Towards the end of the 19th century, in the rail workshops where grinding is going on, they are using wet rags over their mouths and noses to try and reduce the particles breathed in. You can imagine they’re not tremendously effective.”

Mike, who has studied the cultural history of safety and accident prevention, said machine operators would also use guards to reduce the risk of accidents but for workers on a piece rate it would almost certainly decrease the amount of money they would earn.

“There’s an interesting idea of responsibility,” he added. “An idea that if the worker is provided with stuff, it’s their own fault and carelessness if they’re hurt if they don’t use it because they gave them the opportunity.”

In its handbook, GWR was clear who had ultimate responsibility for the safety of its workers: “We’re trying to make you realise the need for thinking of your own safety. We want you to look after yourself.”

British Rail mesh goggles from the late 1960s. Photo: Railway Museum.
British Rail mesh goggles from the late 1960s. Photo: Railway Museum.


Over time the industry’s perspective on PPE and who is responsible for worker safety has shifted. In the 1960s, high-visibility clothing was introduced to the country’s railways, supported by a now controversial poster campaign featuring a bikini-clad woman to encourage reluctant men to wear them (PPE, not bikinis).

“I’ve seen some of British Rail’s minutes from that period when they were trying to introduce it and they say it’s a problem getting men to wear these things. They see them as unmanly,” says Mike. “By the early ‘70s, I’m not saying there is widespread love of it or acceptance but – from the minutes of the meetings I’ve read – it says people are more willing to wear it.”

Regulation in the form of the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 and the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002 have since changed this, putting a legal duty on employers to provide suitable PPE.

A British Rail safety poster from 1967. Photo: Science Museum Group.
A British Rail safety poster from 1967. Photo: Science Museum Group.


As the industry’s approach to safety and its resultant practices have developed, so has PPE, which continues to evolve. To get a better insight, RailStaff spoke to some of the leading workwear manufacturers to find out what has changed, what is being developed, and why.

Stuart Jukes, managing director of Pulsar, has worked in the industry for almost 20 years. Originally the workwear manufacturer was known as Praybourne but reinvented itself in 2007 to target a higher end of the market producing protective clothing with more features and benefits for the wearer.

“I would say that when we first got into the industry 10 or 11 years ago there was a huge push towards price,” said Stuart. “You found that a lot of people were using heavier non-breathable fabrics, which then became lighter, non-breathable fabrics, which reduced the performance of the garment. Now there is a move to lighter weight, highly breathable fabrics.”

The company’s experience in producing a product that is lighter and more comfortable is the same as that of ProGARM, a specialist firm that exclusively manufactures arc flash and flame resistant clothing. ProGARM’s product and quality manager Adrian Jaoudat said there have been huge advances in the technology used to make the fabrics by learning lessons from the sports industry, specifically ski and hiking wear.

He added: “It is really more about agility and making the wearer more comfortable while exercising. In terms of design you have side panels that assist with movement and different shapes for the knee area to match bends to the joints as well as articulated sections of the garments or seams in different places. In the past it would be a straight garment with no thought process beyond the actual patterns of it.

“The end user has realised they don’t just need a garment to meet the specific standards, they also want it to be comfortable and look nice. It needs to have features and certain aspects that you wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago.”

The new female PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is can be seen (Left) modelled next to the current unisex issue equipment (Right). Photo: TfL.
The new female PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) can be seen (Left) modelled next to the current unisex issue equipment (Right). Photo: TfL.


In recent years, the industry has sought to tackle its previously unisex approach to PPE, as women increasingly take up traditionally male-dominated roles. Assumptions that women can use the same PPE as men have been cast aside because of risks to safety, the barrier it creates to more women entering the workforce and equality law, which requires employers to treat women no less favourably than men.

Speaking in 2015, Melanie Ogden, a project manager on the Northern Line Extension, welcomed her employer Transport for London’s (TfL) launch of its first range of women’s PPE.

“Finding PPE that fits has always been a challenge for women in engineering, whether it’s rolling up sleeves, holding up trousers or having to wear multiple pairs of socks just to keep our shoes on,” she said. “A ‘one size fits all’ approach for men and women hasn’t worked, which is why it’s great to see TfL taking a lead in this area. Taking part in the trial to source new women’s PPE has been enjoyable and has resulted in comfortable clothing that allows us to move more freely and work more effectively.”

Safety equipment provider Arco is currently working on a product that will support the increasing diversification of the workforce for both the rail and construction industries. Richard Sansom, product and procurement manager, said it hopes to launch the high-visibility ‘modesty tunic’ in 12 months’ time.

He added: “Simply providing female workers with PPE designed for men isn’t a solution. For people of certain faiths and also from a maternity perspective, women’s hi-vis garments are too fitted. So one of the things we’re in the development stage of is offering modesty clothing, which is a looser fit and will still be certified to the hi-vis standards but not cause snagging issues.

“There’s no reason why a pregnant woman shouldn’t continue to do their job if she’s fit to work or someone with a particular religion made to feel uncomfortable and not supported by the industry for the PPE they are being provided.”

Photo: Network Rail.
Photo: Network Rail.

What next?

During September’s London Fashion Week, campaign group Friends of the Earth called on clothing firms to do more to tackle plastic pollution, with many people unaware just how much plastic there is in their clothing – particularly in high-visibility clothing – and from talking to manufacturers, there is an appetite to change.

Pulsar’s Stuart Jukes added: “Environmental impact is becoming increasingly important, as we continue to look towards sustainable and renewable materials and fibres. As the climate continues to change in the UK, we need to make sure we are manufacturing products that are more adaptable to that climate change.”

Charles Wilson, the UK sales manager for international fabric supplier Carrington, said his company has had a “big push” to have as little amount of impact on the environment as possible. He added: “People want to be able to recycle their garments and they also want recycled fabric used. So we do recycled polyester from plastic bottles, we use organic cotton, but also we are getting into garment recycling.

“The accountability to the environment is going to be the next big thing, the trail of how where and when the fabric was made.”

Driven by the fast pace of technological progress, the development of PPE and the processes involved in producing it show no signs of slowing down. Before they went into liquidation, Carillion was working with one of Carrington’s customers on futuristic protective clothing that would be able to monitor the wearer’s temperature by integrating technology into the garments. There are multiple transformative applications and possibilities as the techniques for doing so become better developed and costs decrease but there’s one big hurdle to get over before it becomes commonplace.

“The problem with all this wearable tech is that it doesn’t wash,” said Charles. “It looks great on a fashion walk, and it looks great on a prototype but in the real world, we’re nowhere near there yet. It will come, and we’re talking decades, but it’s not possible to do that yet.”

This article was written by Stewart Thorpe.

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