The global COVID-19 pandemic and the absence of an effective vaccine have made prevention of person-to-person transmission crucial, particularly for healthcare personnel and other frontline workers. As a result, demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) has spiked, and it shows no signs of abating in the near future. The PPE sector was estimated to be worth $50 billion in 2019, and it is anticipated to surpass $80 billion by 2026, expanding at a projected 7% compound annual growth rate over the forecast timeframe.
PPE refers to a range of safety equipment designed to mitigate exposure to potentially hazardous workplace situations, injuries, and illnesses. The protective gear can safeguard the wearer in a number of dangerous situations, including exposure to physical, mechanical, electrical, and chemical hazards. The PPE market can be segmented into safety glasses, gloves, footwear, vests, coveralls, headgear, and full-body suits, and may include respirators, among other products.
Workplace safety measures established by OSHA in the United States and similar bodies in other countries have mainstreamed PPE to some extent, but the sector has gained even more prominence since the emergence of COVID-19. Ubiquitous in healthcare settings, PPE has also penetrated various industries and even day-to-day life. Demand for masks, face shields, and gloves has skyrocketed, and factories across the world have ramped up to meet demand.
PPE demand rises in building and construction
Demand for PPE has been consistently strong within the building and construction sector, owing to the risk of electric shocks, splashes, drips, falling and flying objects, spills, and so forth. Hard hats, footwear, and other safety apparel and equipment have made building and construction a dependable growth avenue for the PPE market. In 2019, it accounted for approximately $8 billion of the PPE market. It is expected to experience a slight setback this year, however, because of lockdowns, social distancing requirements, and production halts.
Nevertheless, analysts expect the pace to pick up in the construction sector. Protective head gear is deemed to be the most important, valued at more than $2.5 billion by 2026. Increasingly stringent safety measures at construction sites may result in 7.5% CAGR through 2026 for this part of the PPE market, according to various estimates.
The use of PPE in these turbulent times has extended to manufacturing, as the production and distribution of essential goods and services is a high priority. Global manufacturing and supply chains will need to exercise extreme caution at the workplace, making protective gear compulsory for many workers. The protective clothing segment of PPE was valued at $11 billion in 2019; demand for protective shields, coveralls, and gloves has spiked, pushing the protective clothing segment of PPE to a CAGR of 7% through 2026.
Impact of COVID-19 on medical PPE supply chains
COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, and has quickly established itself as one of the most severe global health threats. At the time of writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that more than 20,439,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 744,000 deaths have been reported globally.
Medical PPE has become mandatory for healthcare infrastructures worldwide, especially for frontline workers coming into close contact with the virus during the screening, testing, and treatment of patients. The explosive surge in demand has created gaps in the supply chain for crucial single-use protective gear, leading to global shortages.
According to the WHO, the cost of surgical masks increased six-fold in March, while N95 respirators tripled in price, and surgical gowns doubled. Meanwhile, industries were encouraged to increase PPE production by more than 40% to keep up with the exponential rise in demand.
Despite these efforts, PPE supplies remained alarmingly low in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. A few weeks back, we heard reports that nurses in the United States were re-using N95 masks for days on end. Many doctors reported that they were unable to reopen clinics because of a lack of PPE. Public officials struggled to source PPE across the United States and overseas.
In Italy, these shortages were a major contributing factor to the rampant spread of the infection and fatalities among medical staff. Back in March, healthcare workers contributed to 9% of Italy’s COVID-19 cases, owing to a severe collapse in the supply of medical PPE. The Italian Nurses Association and the International Council of Nurses issued warnings of the dire consequences if adequate personal protective equipment were not provided for nurses, who had been working 24/7 with patients suffering from COVID-19.
The reality on the ground prompted a massive increase in PPE manufacturing worldwide. Despite production shutdowns, companies have been working around the clock to provide an adequate number of masks, face shields, gowns, and related equipment to frontline workers. Factories in Europe have stepped up operations to manufacture adequate protective gear. Europe’s PPE industry was valued at $10.5 billion in 2019 and is expected to surpass $16 billion by 2026. The North American PPE market is expected to cross the $30 billion mark by 2026.
In time, suppliers have come forward to bridge the supply gap in safety gear, as has been reported extensively in PlasticsToday. Myriad business teams and entities have demonstrated ingenuity in addressing PPE shortages by undertaking efficient sourcing and production initiatives.
For example, the Global Center for Medical Innovation recently collaborated with scientists and researchers from the Invention Studio of the Georgia Institute of Technology and medical personnel to address the severe shortage of PPE for frontline healthcare workers. The initiative involves the free provision of PPE design and regulatory guidance to any GMP-compliant production plant for use in the manufacture and distribution of safety gear such as face shields to medical workers.
CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield took a similar initiative with a $5 million public-private effort to distribute PPE free of charge to frontline healthcare and social service workers. CareFirst is also using the program to collaborate with a network of prominent PPE suppliers to distribute FDA-approved protective equipment. CareFirst has pledged to deliver more than 1.6 million gloves, masks, gowns, and face-shields to primary care providers, community-based organizations, and federally approved health centers in Maryland, northern Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
PPE demand has positive impact on plastics processors
The urgent need for PPE and the invaluable role that plastic plays in their fabrication, as well as a reconsideration of the benefits of single-use plastic bags in combatting transmission of the virus, have muted campaigns to vilify and ban single-use plastics. This has led to growth opportunities among some plastics processing companies, as so many medical products — IV fluid bags, blood bags, ventilators, hospital gowns, gloves, and so forth — are made of plastic.
While the health and hygiene benefits of single-use plastics have come to the forefront during the pandemic, some activists have cautioned that the proliferation of plastic waste will have an adverse impact on the environment. In view of this, research is being carried out to advance alternative materials for PPEs. For example, activist group A Plastic Planet has joined forces with packaging companies Transcend Packaging and Reelbrands to develop plastic-free face masks.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has sent a timely reminder to the world that plastics play a critical role in medical emergencies, and technologies exist and are being developed to create a truly circular economy. Let’s not throw out…