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Lemon’s History Of PPE

One of our recent blog posts looked at the history of hygiene – its origins, adoption and continued development. That got us thinking, what about the first examples of personal protective equipment? We’ll hazard a guess that Egyptian pyramids weren’t built by workers in hard hats, high-vis jackets and steel-cap boots... So, when did these items start appearing, then? In other words, when did the construction industries (and other similar sectors) start to adopt more serious health and safety measures? As a PPE supplier, we were keen to find out.

Plague Doctors (16th Century)

Now, before we dig any deeper, it’s worth pointing out that PPE has been around for millennia when you consider armour used, militarily. What we’re interested in is the first development of equipment akin to what we might deem as PPE, today. The shoots from which an entire health and safety industry subsequently blossomed. Perhaps appropriately, given the current climate, the first widespread known usage of PPE dates to sixteenth-century Europe, when the continent was in the depths of the plague.

So-called plague doctors were physicians tasked with treating victims of the bubonic plague. Their distinctive outfit comprised of a wax-treated, full-length gown, gloves, a helmet, glass eyes and, most unusual of all… a beak. These hollow beak structures were filled with sweet-smelling flowers to block out bad ‘disease-carrying odours’ which was one of the commonly held (but entirely misguided) scientific beliefs of the time.


An honourable mention must also go here to beekeepers around the same period, who were smart enough to know that if you’re dealing with a swarm of irritated bees, it’s probably a good idea to wear some kind of ‘body armour’ or protective clothing…

Firefighter Bunker Gear (19th Century)

Just as when dealing with plague victims, self-preservation has long since been in the interests of those whose job it is to deal with towering blazes, all day long. How long exactly? Well, the first example of what we’d term the modern firefighter’s helmet was designed in 1830 by an American firefighter.

From then on, over the next century and a half and up until the present day, more and more articles of PPE were added to the fireman’s get-up. Woollen trousers were replaced by rubber leggings, before the Nomax suit then replaced the tunic and leggings, offering much greater protection against heat and flames thanks to its flame-retardant fibres, as well as being waterproof. Today, modern firefighters typically wear suits either made of PBI, Nomax or Kevlar.

The Hard Hat

When we think of health and safety, one of the first images our minds jump to is that of the humble hard hat, the initial versions of which were made out of leather and sold by the E.D Bullard Company (a prominent mining company at the time). By 1919, son of the company’s founder, E. W. Bullard created the hard-boiled hat, made out of glue, black paint and canvas. Soon after, hard hats became widespread in shipyards, and they’ve been an industrial staple ever since! It’s fair to say that the helmets we offer as a PPE supplier are just a little bit more up-to-date than those first hard-boiled hats!...

Respirators (19th Century)

Nowadays, respirators and other face coverings (respirators and surgical-type masks are different, it’s worth pointing out) are part and parcel of everyday life. Whether you’re on the train, strolling through the reduced aisle of the supermarket or indulging in a spot of retail therapy, you have a covering of some kind or rather over your face. Unless you’re deliberately wearing a face covering that’s provocative or lewd (which we don’t provide as a PPE supplier, and wouldn’t particularly advocate…) you’re not going to be turning heads.

If you wore one of the respirators from a couple of hundred years ago, however, you’d look certainly draw attention to yourself. The primitive examples, dating right back to the start of the 19th century and were used by mining engineers. As the century progressed, examples became more sophisticated and in 1848, the first ‘air-purifying’ (filtering) respirator was patented by Lewis P. Haslett. The first truly effective respirator, however, one which was actively able to remove toxic gases from the air, was Scotsman John Stenhouse’s activated charcoal respirator.

By the early 1900s, the first respirator demonstrably proven, through empirical testing, that it protected against bacteria, was designed in China. This design, created by Chinese physician Lien-the Wu is seen by many as the forebear of the modern-day respirators.

The ‘FFP3’

One of the most common pieces of PPE used within the EU, today, is the surgical FFP3 respirator. An acronym for filtering face piece, the FFP3 is the most effective mask offered within this standard, filtering at least 99% of airborne particles. Functionally, these respirators are equivalent to the famous N95 surgical respirators used in the USA, and the KN95 filters used in China. The FFP3 protects against everything from dust particles to harmful airborne pathogens.

Contact Our PPE Supplier Today!

For a comprehensive list of the PPE supplies we offer, take a look at our website, or alternatively, you can get in touch! Contact Lemon today by emailing us at info@lemon.co.uk or by calling on 0333 241 6950.