With the advent of personalized medicine, industries are learning that they can customize their products and services to each client. The PPE industry is no outlier, and has taken to offering customized PPE at a level of specificity that will be able to serve any industry with any need.

Is customization a sustainable trend? Or will it fade due to the difficulty in maintaining the quality necessary to please each customer?

Before answering these questions, let us examine some of the ways that customization is serving the industry.

The Perfect Fit

Ill-fitting PPE can be uncomfortable, inefficient, and even downright dangerous. For example…

  • Baggy material can snag on tools or machinery.
  • Improperly fitting gloves can cause the worker to drop or mishandle products.
  • Ineffective PPE, like eye or hearing protection, can put a worker at risk of vision or hearing damage.
  • Loose PPE, such as helmets or protective headphones, can slip into a worker’s eyes, or fall off completely and cause an accident.
  • Improperly fitting footwear can cause blisters, falls, other accidents. The steel toe on an improperly fitting boot also may not fully cover the worker’s toes.
  • Consistently wearing heavy equipment that fits improperly can cause musculoskeletal disorders, according to IOSH Magazine.

In addition, workers with awkwardly fitting PPE may alter it, compromising the PPE’s integrity, or opt not to wear it at all.

Especially at risk for ill-fitting PPE are women, non-whites, and people who are significantly larger or smaller than average in some way. PPE designers and manufacturers use anthropometry, the science that determines a person’s size and body shape, to create standard PPE. Traditionally, PPE has been designed and manufactured with the average white male in mind, due to outdated anthropometric data and studies of military personnel collected between 1950 and 1970.

Women, for example, now make up almost a third of the manufacturing industry and more than three quarters of the healthcare industry. It is therefore surprising that a female’s body shape differences is not taken into account when producing standardized PPE. In general, females have narrower shoulders shorter torsos, and wider hips than men, but require additional room in the chest area. Women’s hands are typically smaller, with both narrower fingers and finger length proportions that differ from men’s. Simply “sizing down,” as they are commonly advised, will result in PPE that fits in some places but is far too baggy or tight in others. Instead, they need PPE that is tailored to their bodies.

In addition to women, workers who are overweight, very thin, shorter than 5-foot-5, or taller than 6 feet may also find it difficult to find well-fitting PPE. Even PPE like face masks, that would seem to fit a larger spectrum of sizes, can require customization. N95 face masks are designed to fit snugly, but studies have shown that facial dimensions can vary up to 22 millimeters, which is significant when it comes to creating a sufficient seal. Women and people of Asian descent are most likely to have an insufficient seal due to facial differences.

The solution in all of these cases? Customized PPE. Manufacturers are beginning to create PPE that is tailored to the “typical” female body, while also offering more customized PPE for those who struggle to find standardized PPE that fits correctly.

Getting the Job Done…Safely

Some manufacturers, such as Magid and Tytan, are also trying to customize PPE to serve very specific purposes in various industries. For example, a company might realize that its gloves are wearing out very quickly in certain areas of the hand, due to those areas coming into constant contact with materials that are rough or sharp. Of course, one solution is to simply keep on buying new gloves as they wear out. A better, more efficient solution, however, is to purchase customized gloves that are more durable in those specific areas.

Similarly, companies may order flame-resistant jackets with cut-resistant sleeves attached, or cut-resistant gloves with a liner to reflect heat, or protective headwear that includes UV protection for working in a sunny location. Any of these custom orders can either save workers from wearing multiple layers of PPE, or make workers who would normally wear only one layer much safer than they were before.

Some industries, such as glass manufacturing or lime production, can be uniquely dangerous environments that require equally unique PPE. For example, glass manufacturers may add patches of higher cut resistance to existing PPE can save money, since they will only have to replace the inexpensive patch as needed, rather than the entire garment. More importantly, these patches can provide workers with additional protection.

Customizing for Inclusivity

Another group that greatly benefits from PPE customization is workers with disabilities. Without customized clothing, a worker who was missing a finger would need to tack down one of the empty fingers of the gloves. This might put the worker at risk of the tacked-down material catching onto machinery or other objects. A customized glove simply includes only the existing fingers. Customized gloves are also available for workers with hand defects.

Other customized PPE may include protective overalls that tuck into a prosthetic leg, special shoes for those with foot conditions (e.g., hammertoes, claw or mallet toes, diabetes), or heat-resistant sleeves that seal at the elbow for an amputee.

Looking to the Future

So is customization here to stay? While no one has a crystal ball, it does seem that it will continue to become more prevalent in the PPE manufacturing industry.

PPE is a very commoditized industry, and it will largely continue to be so. The largest glove manufacturers compete, by and large, based on the price and variety of their products. In order to gain market share, all PPE manufacturers—but especially smaller ones—need to differentiate their products so that they can charge higher margins. Thus, they will likely continue to offer customized options into the future.

Written by Robert Brown