One industry sector that does not seem to receive the coverage and focus that it deserves is the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) sector. This is surprising, since a recent research report undertaken by Markets and Markets, one of the premium forecasting and market research firms in the world, found that the PPE industry looks set to grow globally by nearly 7% per annum to reach a value of over $52.4 Billion by 2020. Those are some serious numbers.
For those not familiar with the industry, PPE in essence refers to ‘protective clothing, helmets, goggles, or other garments or equipment designed to protect the wearer’s body from injury or infection. The hazards addressed by protective equipment include physical, electrical, heat, chemicals, biohazards, and airborne particulate matter.’ (Wikipedia) Chief markets served by the PPE industry include mining, oil and gas, construction, waste management, fisheries and manufacturing, but most industries utilise PPE in some way or another.
Recent years have seen a number of changes and new trends blowing through the industry, particularly in South Africa, with its unique labour landscape and challenges of slow economic growth and a weak currency. To find out where the industry is headed and what we can expect to see in the future in terms of trends and focus areas, Antony Ressel spoke to Michael Fortune, Director and Head of Sales for Uhambo Procurement and Distribution, a PPE sourcing, distribution and consulting company based in Cape Town’s northern suburbs.
- What are the main trends locally in terms of PPE at the moment?
There is increasing friction between quality, comfort and price, as the falling Rand has seen many industries turn to local manufacturers as imports become too expensive. This has created a monopoly situation in some cases, with certain manufacturers controlling vast segments of the market. This, coupled with stricter legislative and safety requirements in many industries, has placed Safety Officers in a difficult position – they have to watch their PPE budgets and look for the best value, but if staff get injured on the job the consequences could be crippling. Just look at what happened at Lily mine recently, where three workers were trapped underground – we actually distribute a product that works on a wireless network and tracks an individual miner’s exact whereabouts and movements at all times. In this case had the miners been wearing this device (which doubles as a high-beam light), rescuers would have been able to pinpoint exactly where they were after the cave-in happened and not only would the chances of rescue been much higher, but millions in costs could have been saved. This is only one example and clearly Lily mine could not have foreseen this happening, but people are starting to realise that it is often better to spend more on PPE in the short term, to save lives, costs (and reputational damage) in the long-term.
From a technical perspective, improved technology has led to lighter, more comfortable and durable options where shoes and clothing is concerned. Branding of overalls has become the standard across all industries, including having coveralls manufactured in specific colours for specific clients. Reflective tape is now also provided as a standard feature on almost all overalls sold, as night and day visibility has become a priority.
- How have things changed in the industry in the past few years?
Companies are becoming more aware of the legislative requirements relating to PPE. Tightening regulations, and the potentially devastating consequences of non-compliance, have seen companies increasingly strive to ensure their employees are wearing the correct Personal Protective Equipment in the correct environments and working conditions.
- What are the three most important things that a safety officer needs to know?
– What equipment does the scope of work require to ensure the workers safety is not compromised?
- Does the equipment conform to the necessary specifications and legislative requirements (EN, CE, SABS & SANS Certification)?
- He or she must have a full understanding of the consequences when providing equipment that does not conform to the necessary specifications, and the probable litigation in the event of injury or death of a worker. He or she must also have an understanding of how to test whether or not the Personal Protective Equipment supplied conforms to the necessary specifications.
- What are some of the constraints your business faces and how do you plan to overcome these?
– While our 100% Black-owned status has assisted us to get a foot in the door, there are competitors who have been operational for decades and even though they do not meet necessary BEE requirements, they still receive the majority of business from the private sector. From our perspective, we are in the process of becoming ISO 9001:2015 compliant and we are doing NOSA, HIRA and NOSA Advanced OSHACT short courses. We intend utilizing this certification as a value add to our clients. We will be able to recommend products based on the legal framework and legislative requirements on a consultancy basis. We are also importing new products that are not locally produced and acquiring sole distributorship for these items, such as the wireless mining lamps and top-of-the-range fire boots.
- Do you have any suggestions to help companies implement effective PPE in the workplace?
– Training in the workplace is very important, as just issuing the PPE to a worker without the necessary compliance requirements or training could potentially put his or her life at risk. As just one example, when wearing flame retardant or fire resistant overalls, the employee may not wear polyester or poly cotton undergarments, as these are highly flammable and render the functionality of the overall null and void. The same applies to garments worn over flame retardant or fire resistant garments; these must be manufactured with the identical inherent fire resistant properties or once again it will render the intended item as non-compliant for its intended purpose.
What innovations or new designs excite you in the industry?
The dual functionality of various products supplied excites us, as well as an increased focus on products that do not just meet their intended purpose, but are also comfortable and attractive. In the past, PPE products were often dull and did not look very professional, and the worker did not feel like a valued stakeholder while wearing them. The trend overseas is for protective clothing to be comfortable, look very professional and yet be fully functional. All PPE is adopting this trend, with the intention of making every employee not just feel safe but also like a valued member of the team, which is good for business ultimately.