5 Times in History That PPE Didn’t Protect Us at All

April 27, 2020


On the Job


Kristen Brown

We are lucky to live in an era where personal protective equipment (PPE) is a priority in almost every workplace to ensure workers don't get injured. From hospitals to construction sites, wearing PPE has been so strictly integrated into everyday work practices that wearing it becomes part of the job.

But workplaces haven’t always had the knowledge or technology to protect their workers, so naturally have just worked with what they had. Yes, even if those things are animal bladders and viper flesh powder!

Here’s 5 times, despite best efforts that PPE did not do its job.

1. Plague PPE

17th century plague doctor costume. Beak mouth, cape and hat.

Known as a ‘plague doctor’, 17th century physicians would dress in a bird-like costume before examining high risk patients. It consisted of a wax-coated gown and a full face mask with a beak shaped nose. The eye openings were made from glass and the nose of the mask was stuffed with straw, spices, herbs and even viper flesh powder, as well as scented components such as juniper berry and cloves.

A cane was also carried (old school social distancing!) so they could instruct people without making direct contact. Doctors believed the plague was airborne and spread by miasma, a noxious form of ‘bad air’ and thought the mixture of herbs and spices would protect them from this threat.

As extravagant as this costume was, it would not have protected doctors from the infectious airborne diseases it was designed to ward off. Inhaling droplets that infected patients sneezed or coughed could not be stopped by the 'fumigation' tools in the mask. Also a lot of disease was spread by animals to humans and through flea bites. Not until doctors understood germ theory and the need for antibiotics did protection for medical staff prove sufficient.

2. Bladder and beard respirators (RPE)

Black and white photo of man wearing fire hat with a big beard

From preventing firefighters from inhaling smoke to protecting stonemasons from deadly dust, there are many professions that rely on respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to keep their workers safe. And because there are so many different particles and vapours to protect people from, there has been an ongoing need for the design of the masks to change.

The earliest use of respirators was seen in Ancient Roman times, where loosely fitted animal bladders were used to protect the face and mouth.

In the 18th and 19th century, firemen were required to have full beards which they would soak in water and clamp with their teeth to protect them from smoke inhalation.

After this came the suggestion of wetting cloth, wool and various other materials to provide protection.

We know today that these methods would have left workers defenceless against gases and lead and metal dust they would have come into contact with in various professions.

Not until the industrial revolution in the 1800's did respirators really start to protect against the chemicals workers were inhaling. But even today, with all the technological and medical advances, there are still cases of people developing disease after poor use of breathing apparatuses.

3. Sheep intestine gloves

Painting of three men shearing sheep

Continuing the theme of animal-derived PPE, in the 1700's lots of products that we now make out of latex were made out of sheep's intestines. Including the gloves that doctors used.

Primarily used in pelvic examinations, sheep's intestine gloves were chosen for their stretch and apparent protection from bodily fluids. However, due to the large pores in the intestines, they did not protect doctors from infectious disease and illness.

4. Aluminium hard hats

Two pictures of aluminium hard hats

The title alone is enough to make anyone working near electricity shiver. But it's true that one of the earliest hard hat creations was made of aluminium. Chosen for it's strength and durability in 1938 by manufacturer Bullard, the design was thankfully scrapped after the realisation it was a perfect conductor for electricity.

Originally coined the "hard boiled hat" hard hats were primarily designed for underground miners in California and didn't actually become mandatory on constructions sites until well into the 1970's in most countries. This was due to the increase in liability and compensation costs, previous to this is was cheaper to replace an injured worker than to implement a new safety procedure!

5. Body belt harness

Black and white photo of a man working on a tall structure without any harness

Admittedly, the 1920s body belt harness was a step up from the protection given to workers previous to this - which was nothing at all!

The harness was created to protect people who worked from extreme heights, featuring a fall protection system that was basically a belt worn loosely around the waists of employees.

The issue with this system was that its success was determined by a person falling correctly. And if they didn't? The belt would slip right over their shoulders and provide no protection at all!

All we can say is thank goodness for modern day PPE!

And if for some reason your employer is making you use a bird costume (!) or you're just not sure if things are up to scratch, check your rights or find out how to report an unsafe workplace.

Kristen Brown

Kristen is a Social Media and Content Marketing Specialist. She has experience writing on road and work safety and legal rights topics. Currently she leads the content for Smith's Lawyers as editor and content creator for the blog.