The Past, Present and Future of Respiratory PPE — Occupational Health & Safety

The Past, Present and Future of Respiratory PPE

The Past, Present and Future of Respiratory PPE

What’s the importance of respiratory PPE then and now?

A little over a year ago, “respiratory PPE” was almost exclusively considered industrial terminology. Then came COVID-19. This deadly, highly contagious respiratory illness forced respirators and face masks into the forefront of our everyday vocabulary, dominating headlines and conversations daily.

With the pandemic came skyrocketing demand for respiratory PPE, resulting in a critical shortage of PPE in many industries, with healthcare being hit the hardest. As the demand for N95 masks catapulted, the supply and infrastructure for many of the manufacturers weren’t built or designed to keep up.

Additionally, the safety industry saw an influx of several new N95 manufacturers and suppliers, many of whom didn’t have an established background in PPE production. With this change in the competitive landscape and more manufacturers than ever before, PPE research and worker-focused innovation has become even more crucial to all industry players trying to stay in the game.

The Past

While PPE has been making headlines recently, respirators have been around for more than a century. What started from wet cloths and animal skins has evolved into a full range of respiratory protection solutions for a variety of applications, from military and first responders to industrial workers and healthcare professionals.

Why exactly do we need respiratory PPE? Simply put, respiratory protection exists to help protect humans from inhaling anything that is potentially harmful or dangerous in their environment. And COVID-19 isn’t the first outbreak of its kind—not even close. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen Ebola, Zika, SARS and Swine Flu, all of which pre-dated COVID-19 and had respiratory protection implications.
Here’s why: the aerosolization of viruses enables infection of a person through the respiratory system or the eyes. That’s why the filtering capacity of respiratory PPE is the most critical factor in protection from COVID-19 and other respiratory-born illnesses. It’s also why we’ve seen supply disappear from shelves and why more stockpiling and preparedness will become the norm on a go-forward basis.

This article originally appeared in the May 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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