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The Importance of Personal Protective Equipment for the Healthcare Sector and for the World

Close-up of a doctor wearing goggles, a hairnet, and a surgical mask underneath a face shield.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was once primarily significant to workers in the healthcare industry, but it became a near-universal necessity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. People began shopping for PPE to keep themselves and their family members safe during the crisis, leading to global supply shortages of face masks, gloves, eye protection, and other equipment. 

Suddenly, PPE became just as important for the world as it already was for the healthcare industry — and, given the state of the global market and lasting impacts of the pandemic, this importance is far more likely to grow and evolve than to dissipate in the coming years.

The Global Market for PPE

Matching the persistent rise in demand for PPE, the global market continues to grow. According to some estimates, the PPE market could increase by 7.3% each year between 2020 and 2028. As of 2020, the market was valued at $77.36 billion; if it holds true, this level of growth would increase its value to $135.93 billion by 2028.

While the market may not ultimately expand at this pace or to such a large extent, the pandemic, improved quality of equipment, and improved workplace safety regulations are all driving forces propelling this growth. As the market advances and develops, so do the potential uses for PPE. 

Modern PPE has been in development since the Manchurian pneumonic plague in the early 1900s. After learning that the disease spread through the air, doctor Wu Lien-Teh created a robust face mask to wear as protection. Despite initial doubts about its efficacy, his invention helped save countless lives and put an end to the pandemic. It’s thought that both the modern N95 respirator and hazmat suit were inspired by this invention. 

The Manchurian plague may have ended in 1911, but the healthcare PPE revolution was only just beginning. Over the last century, researchers have found new uses for and developed new kinds of PPE, including:

  • Respirators: Respirators prevent you from breathing in contaminants in the air. They can either filter out any contaminants present in the air you breathe (such as the N95 respirator), or provide an independent source of clean air (such as a scuba diving respirator). Surgical masks and other face masks are not necessarily respirators, though they are still considered PPE.
  • Skin Protection: As the name suggests, skin-protecting PPE prevents various hazards from harming your skin. This includes different types of gloves, face shields, and lab coats. Specialized skin protection PPE is common in healthcare, but certain types (such as rubber gloves) have widespread use in other contexts, ranging from food service to individual households.
  • Eye Protection: Similarly, eye protection PPE protects your eyes from different biological, physical, and chemical hazards. Eye protection can range from a simple pair of safety goggles that block general debris to highly specialized glasses that protect against specific hazards. Even a single type of eye protection, such as lead glasses, can be further customized for particular jobs, including radiation, glass, and forensic work.
  • Hearing Protection: Hearing protection PPE works to preserve your hearing, protect your ears, and prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Earplugs (which go in the ears) and earplugs (which go over the ears) are among the most common forms of hearing PPE. 
  • Protective Clothing: Any kind of clothing or ensemble intended to protect you from harm while working. This includes scrubs, lab coats, protective aprons and smocks, and hazmat suits. Many of the other forms of PPE can be categorized more broadly as protective clothing that is specific to a certain body part. 

With a greater understanding of PPE’s value and continued technological advancements, there may be additional kinds of PPE developed in the future.

How the Production of PPE Has Changed Over Time

Various new technologies have helped the healthcare industry evolve, and PPE is no exception. Advancements in manufacturing and transportation have made it significantly easier to produce and distribute PPE on a global scale.

Now that PPE is widely accessible, the focus has shifted from creation and dissemination to advancement and problem-solving. Widespread use of PPE has resulted in unforeseen challenges that modern PPE users and producers are working to solve. Some of the pain points that need to be addressed are making PPE that is comfortable to wear for extended periods and that is simple for healthcare professionals to use effectively.

Future design and production will likely continue to focus on solving these issues related to PPE use. Others may prioritize the creation of reusable PPE, both to address ongoing and future supply shortages, as well as to reduce the environmental impact of PPE use. Above all else, these efforts will likely center on making PPE as user-friendly and effective as possible, both to protect the people who wear them and the community as a whole.

When it comes to the workplace, access to PPE is also a legal and social justice issue. The need for PPE hasn’t always been taken seriously, which is dangerous for healthcare workers, patients, and the entire community. People have had to fight for their right to use PPE in healthcare and ensure their safety in the workplace. These battles are, in part, responsible for the now widespread proliferation of PPE. 

However, PPE is still not equally available to all people and communities. The pandemic shed light on, and possibly exacerbated, significant disparities in PPE access. Often, larger and wealthier healthcare establishments have greater access to PPE than smaller ones. This disparity puts certain communities at an increased risk of injury and illness, as well as financial hardship, simply because they do not have enough PPE. 

These disparities indicate that, just as PPE itself has evolved, so have the issues surrounding its use and allocation. As PPE becomes more important to the general public, it will become equally important to ensure everyone can access PPE when they need it.

The Business of PPE

In the United States, healthcare is still a business and, for many to understand the true value of PPE, people must treat it as such. It may be a necessity, but healthcare organizations have to spend money to obtain PPE. Additional expenses come from training — so employees know how to put on, wear, and remove PPE — as well as cleaning and disposing of PPE.

Generally, the cost of purchasing PPE outweighs the cost of not having it at all. It protects workers from injury and illness, allowing them to continue working uninterrupted. Making PPE accessible to workers, and enforcing its proper use, also reduces the chance that a business could be held liable for an incident in the workplace.

During the pandemic, businesses outside of the healthcare industry were expected to provide PPE to both workers and consumers. Customers and employees alike may continue to expect businesses to provide PPE to them. PPE just makes good business sense and, going forward, will be essential for organizations of all kinds to succeed.

Ultimately, PPE has made deep and lasting impacts on various aspects of the healthcare industry, as well as the entire world. It’s impossible to predict the future, but PPE’s importance is far more likely to grow, finding new ways to revolutionize our approach to safety and protection in potentially hazardous settings.

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