Taking precaution—in style

From protective headsets that allow users to listen to their iPod tunes when performing tasks to soldiers donning the latest in high-tech night-vision goggles, the $6.4 billion Personal protection equipment (PPE) market continues to grow and expand its repertoire of applications that include safety, entertainment and fashion.

Driven by safety concerns, the environment, new technology and the latest styles, the PPE market grew 7 percent last year, according to Specialists in Business Information (SBI), which tracks the industry.

Specifically, PPE products are becoming more job- and application-specific, said Bill England, a vp at Radians, a leading manufacturer of protection equipment. Fashion trends have affected the business. Radians, for example, sells a matching set of pink earmuffs and pink safety gloves to women who want protection while enjoying the latest in comfort and style. MSA Safety Works sells an eyewear line for women called Safe & Sophisticated, which features large fashionable lenses studded with gemstones. “Fashion is driving sales, and in the past five years the consumer and the DIYers are more educated,” England said.

A manager at a Long Island-based Lowe’s said the retailer displays safety gear adjacent to the tool with which they should be used. “The popularity of personal safety gear for the do-it-yourselfer [is a trend] we’ve been seeing for the past five years or so,” the manager said. “Around that same time, eyewear began to become more stylish.” He added that the new glasses on display change every nine months, much the way the fashion industry does.

Some of this fashion look has spilled into entertainment. “Ear muffs or hearing protectors that also include electronics for entertainment or communications for iPods and MP3 players are top sellers for us,” said Volker Fremuth, channel manager for retail specialty markets at Stanley, which has enjoyed double-digit growth in the PPE category this year. “We’re seeing a lot of attention in electronics hearing protection, which crosses a lot of areas.”

Safety continues to be the single biggest force at play. Safety comes in many forms—from OSHA-mandated workplace safety to more safety-conscious DIYers. Today, it is common to see people wearing safety glasses and wearing protective earmuffs around the yard. “You wouldn’t have seen that between five and 10 years ago,” Fremuth said. “You might today see pretty much everyone in the neighborhood wearing it.”

While PPE products have long existed in the workplace, the increase in home use is more recent. What’s more, today’s consumers aren’t content with low-grade goods; they want what the pros wear, experts said. “We are bringing industrial grade products to consumers; they’re demanding them,” Fremuth said.

Consumers and DIYers who are purchasing PPE gear for home use are doing so for good reason, since most injuries occur at home. The American Academy of Ophthalmology (Academy) and the American Society of Ocular Trauma (ASOT) found in a recent survey that nearly half of the 2.5 million eye injuries that Americans suffer annually now happen in and around the home. The associations have recommended that every household in America have at least one pair of ANSI-approved protective eyewear to be worn when doing projects and activities at home to safeguard against eye injuries. “People seem to understand that you need safety glasses when using power tools, but the threat to your eyesight lurks even in basic home repairs and cleaning,” said H. Dunbar Hoskins Jr., executive vp of the Academy.

MSA Safety Works has operated a six-week Home Safety Tour, in which it visits different towns and cities to educate homeowners about the need for sound safety practices around the house. They even equip individuals with safety glasses, hearing protection and respirators for use at home. The company claims that most people never think about wearing protective products or don’t feel a need to, yet accidents happen when they are least expected.

Fires, drought, hurricanes, floods tornadoes, Avian flu, anthrax scares. There is no shortage of environmental and health-related issues affecting Americans, and in turn that has fueled the PPE market with advances in face masks, gloves and body arm or to protect people. “Personal safety in general has been more and more top of mind as our politics and environment become more saturated with information that makes everyone question that safety,” Fremuth said.

Gloves

Gloves are to the PPE market what footwear is to athletics. Just as consumers have a different shoe for running, basketball, tennis or hiking, gloves fill specific niches within the PPE segment. “Gloves are the most used personal protection equipment product in the U.S.,” said England.

The range of glove products includes disposable, cotton or fabric, leather, metal mesh, aluminized and chemical resistant. Fashion trends have created gloves that protect the skin and look good as well.

Radians sells gloves under the Remington brand. The RG-11 multi-purpose general utility glove comes with breathable spandex that comes with a reinforced thumb crotch for added protection and a streamlined wrist system for comfort and a secure fit. The R-13 Impact Gel Padded Glove is geared for heavy machinery, while the RG-10 Slip-On Glove is for general tasks around the home.

Perfect Fit Glove, a Bacou-Dalloz company, has a line of palm-dipped gloves that includes a ‘hybrid’—a lightweight stretchy nylon liner for flexibility and dexterity, and a latex coating helps resist cuts, punctures and abrasions. Its Tuff-Knit gloves series is made with DuPont Kevlar brand fiber, said to provide exceptional cut, slash, heat and flame resistance.

Home Depot carries 34 skus of Bionic gloves. The gloves were designed by an orthopedic hand surgeon to improve fit, grip, comfort and performance. It also carries the Ease of Use Endorsement of the Arthritis Foundation.

Glasses

Dweeby goggles are losing ground. Styling, sleek looking eyewear is in. Several companies have launched new products that emphasize protection and fashion.

AOSafety’s Refine Safety Eyewear is a new line designed exclusively for women. It is specially sized and styled for the smaller face profiles of women. The products feature lightweight frames and wrap-around lenses. The company also offers safety glasses in a retro style.

Another hot seller is the AOSafety’s air-flow goggles that vent for a clear view without fogging. The glasses are suited for workers in environments with dust and flying debris.

Sperian Protection, a leader in safety eyewear and maker of glasses for numerous companies, launched a series of reader magnifiers that were inspired by the latest styling trends in sunglasses.

MSA introduced the Safe & Sophisticated line of safety eyewear that, according to the company, combines style and glamour with quality and durability. The glasses, specifically designed for women, offer UV 400 protection and anti-fog coating. There are four products in the series—black, red, tortoise shell and white. The black and red glasses come with gemstones.

Radians serves the industrial, sporting goods and hardware sector with high-impact ANSI eyewear. High-end goggles for dust protection and anti-fog wear are brisk sellers for the company, England said. “People are focused on protection, and these eyewear resemble fashionable sunglasses,” he noted. “Women and youth are fueling the growth, and again it speaks to a more educated consumer.”

Masks

N95-certified masks continue to be the biggest draw in the mask segment. More than 20 million U.S. workers are exposed to substances that can cause airway diseases, and millions more do-it-yourselfers are unknowingly exposed. These protection masks are considered excellent choices for hospitals, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, government and pandemic preparedness. They can also be used around the house in clearing asbestos or other contaminants. Stanley sold scores of N95-certified masks in the Midwest this summer to help relief workers in their efforts following the flooding in Iowa and other states. MSA’s line of respirators include products that are designed for paint and pesticide protection and a model that thwarts toxic materials like asbestos.