Category Update: PPE – Scoring a home run

Tougher legislation and an obvious desire to keep workforces properly protected are key drivers for the safety and PPE sectors.


Demand for safety products and personal protection equipment (PPE) is thriving. This is being driven, in part at least, by the introduction of increasingly tough legislation. However, some businesses are clearly struggling to understand an ‘alphabet soup’ of confusing regulations and are looking to their suppliers for guidance in selecting the right products that adhere to the required standards.

As Rebecca Stallard, Marketing Director at wholesaler Spicers in the UK, comments: “Legislation is without doubt a big driver in this market. Recent updates have focused on the classification of products and on aiming to eliminate sub-standard imported products being sold. 

“The other main factor is the economy and specifically the state of the construction industry, one of the largest users of PPE. As a general rule of thumb, when this sector performs well and is building homes there is a follow-on effect which results in increased demand for safety items. And not just from the home-building companies themselves, but also from all the firms that manufacture the products – windows, doors, radiators, boilers, bricks, steel, etc – needed to build them.

“The demand for particular PPE items is ultimately driven by the type of hazards employees face in the workplace. Sadly, this sometimes happens only retrospectively, after an accident has happened.”

Lack of use

Spicers is also noticing a more joined up approach between today’s safety managers and their insurers: “This makes perfect sense,” Stallard says. “Some customers are now having meaningful dialogues with their insurers to explore sensible ways in which they can reduce risk. 

“This can clearly be a success, as we are seeing safety initiatives being entirely funded by the resulting reduction in insurance premiums.”

However, even when protective equipment is provided to staff there’s no guarantee that it will be used correctly, if at all. The International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) in the US reports that many injury victims were simply not using the PPE supplied by their employer. Often the reasons given were that items were uncomfortable, didn’t fit or hindered the work process. 

The ISEA stresses that these problems can be addressed if manufacturers adhere to good product design processes and use the right materials. Matching PPE to job specifications and making informed purchasing decisions is vital it says, as is realising that one size does not fit all and worker engagement and proper training is a critical part of the overall safety package.

Spinning a yarn

Many of the issues cited as reasons for avoiding PPE – such as discomfort or an ill-fit – are being tackled by the introduction of new products that are making use of innovative synthetic fibres. These often incorporate nanotechnologies blended into the materials which then provide the same levels of protection without the need to twist multiple strands of yarn together. As such, they can be half the weight of a traditional fabric, yet last twice as long and, as a bonus, they are generally more efficient to manufacture too. This is leading to the production of protective garments that offer maximum protection, but in thinner, more comfortable and more durable styles. 

These advances in materials science are also being applied to flame-resistant apparel. No longer do workers have to wear a rigid, rough-woven cloth; they now have an array of soft fabrics to choose from that are effective, comfortable and which can look stylish as well. 

Safety eyewear is another sub-category where progress is being made. Standard safety glasses offer protection from projectiles, but in some work environments they are also required to protect against microscopic airborne debris, dust and other small particulates which can cause significant irritation and debilitating eye fatigue. The most effective solution is to have a foam seal around the orbital eye cavity, but previously this has caused fogging, which has often been cited as a common reason for not wearing the protective eyewear provided. 

However, recent work in anti-fogging technologies has now effectively eliminated this problem which should lead to an increase in the use of all-encompassing eye protection glasses.

There are several other technological shifts on the horizon as showcased at the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) annual awards for innovation.   Recent winners have included helmets with integral warning lighting and a system of wearable sensors which collects movement and muscle activity information from multiple body locations. This can then be used to warn the wearer if strain or repetitive movement injuries are likely. In general it’s this incorporation of the latest technology within products that is moving the PPE sector forward. 

Barriers to entry

Clearly, safety and PPE is a burgeoning sector that presents plenty of attractive opportunities. However, as Mike Foster, Director of Merchandising at US dealer group Independent Stationers, reports, there still seem to be barriers preventing entry for OP resellers: “This is a category where dealers could be seeing significant growth, but some appear very reluctant to move into it.”

Stallard believes that a lack of understanding about product costs is one confusing aspect: “It’s one of the most common questions we get asked. Fluctuations in this category are generally driven by the prices of the raw materials – such as oil, latex and cotton – used in PPE production. Currency shifts, particularly between the US dollar and the euro, also have a big influence.” 

Debbie Nice, Facilities Supplies Category Director at UK wholesaler VOW, speculates that – as previously mentioned – some dealers see it as too bound up in regulations: “Many are scared of PPE due to their lack of confidence in understanding the legislation, but some sub-categories offer an easy entry point. We’re concentrating on disposable items such as gloves, masks, hearing and eye protection. Even if the prospect of supplying large contracts seems daunting, if you add together the requirements for these products from all the smaller companies out there, the size of the total market is huge.”

Gloves potential

Gloves in particular continue to be a hugely successful sub-sector within the overall PPE field and it is here where resellers in the business supplies industry typically break into the segment. “It’s about 80% of what our dealers sell in this category,” says Foster. “Sales have grown around 35% each year since 2014, with the largest orders coming from the food service and medical verticals.”

It’s the same story in the UK, adds Nice. “Disposable gloves made from latex, vinyl and nitrile for use in the healthcare and catering services are an excellent growth area for us.” 

For Spicers, the sub-category is its fastest growing area. Explains Stallard: “Customers are reporting that after slips, trips and falls, hand injuries are the most common type of accident staff are encountering. In particular, we’re seeing a greater demand for hand protection from the retail industry where, although the severity of accidents is not high, they can occur quite frequently. Light, dextrous gloves are proving very popular. They are made from thinner-gauge materials and are more comfortable. We’re also seeing advances in knitted gloves that are water repellent. Now wearers can benefit from a breathable glove that doesn’t become saturated in the rain.”

Safety managers also like the traffic light system that some manufacturers are using to enable easy identification of a glove’s properties, such as cut protection. This makes it easy to see if an employee is wearing the correct glove for the job: a green glove in a cut hazard area (highest risk) or a red glove in a general handling area (lowest risk).

Using the correct type of glove is certainly important. According to the National Safety Council in the US, some companies are trying to simplify their PPE purchasing by ordering just one type of cut-resistant glove that meets the greatest hazard in their manufacturing operation. The thought process is that if a glove prevents accidents in a high-hazard situation, it will surely also protect the wearer in less dangerous scenarios. 

However, this can actually lead to non-compliance and injuries that could easily be prevented. For example, gloves rated to the highest cut standard do not offer the necessary dexterity and ‘feel’ for employees that handle small parts or work in packaging and shipping operations. As such, their use may be avoided and, consequently, relatively minor cut hazards can then become frequent injuries.

Other specialist gloves, such as those rated for electrical protection in high-voltage situations – as part of an ‘arc flash’ safety kit – also present unique challenges. Some types of PPE can be used indefinitely until worn out, but these gloves cannot be used for more than six months without being tested and recertified, or disposed of and replaced. Knowing this is not just critical for compliance, it can – without sounding overly dramatic – mean the difference between life and death. 

As with the overall PPE category, being knowledgeable about this sector clearly pays off and a consultative approach becomes a distinct advantage. And if dealers can overcome their fears, the potential is considerable, Foster concludes: “Backed by the right training and sourcing of the correct products there’s no doubt that the safety and PPE sector could represent a home run for dealers.”

First aid to the rescue

Safety products and PPE items are there to prevent accidents, but if they fail to do their job, are not used appropriately or indeed at all, then the next line of defence is first aid. Walter Johnsen is CEO of Acme United, a specialist in the first aid sector. He speaks to OPI about the latest developments in this important area.

OPI: How large is the first aid market in the regions where Acme operates and how is this category performing?

Walter Johnsen: The safety and first aid market in the US, Canada and Europe continues to grow and expand with new products. Our team estimates that the total market for first aid and non-prescription medications is worth around $6 billion. As a company we’re seeing growth of approximately 3% annually.

OPI: What are the main drivers for the growth you’re seeing?

WJ: The key growth drivers are, naturally, concern for employee health and welfare, but there are also cost savings that can be made by addressing accidents quickly when they happen. 

Additionally, there is a wealth of government regulations coming from bodies such as the FDA, EPA, OSHA, ANSI, Health Canada and the EC. These regulations are updated continually – a recent US change now mandates first aid kits for staff and customer use in all restaurants – and businesses and suppliers must update their equipment to comply. Finally, the avoidance of law suits is high on the agenda for all companies.  

OPI: How’s technology playing into this category?

WJ: Technological advances are occurring all the time, not just in wound treatment, but in supply-side processes too. For example, the rollout of our replenishment app this year is showing the benefits it can bring. The app allows customers to scan the products they’ve used, then aggregates their consumption and automatically sends purchase orders to their dealers when new stock is needed. For the customer, the app ensures compliance with appropriate regulations and saves them about 40% in costs compared to delivery by vans. For dealers it creates customer continuity.

Another Acme business development is our acquisition of Spill Magic in February this year. Spill Magic is a powder that reacts with fluids spilled on a floor, the material is then swept up leaving the floor dry and preventing slips. 

Major retailers are using this product now to reduce the incidence of falls on wet floors and we are in the process of bringing it into the broader jan/san market.