The History of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

These days, workers who spend their careers in hazardous environments have access to a wide array of protective apparel and gear to keep them safe and secure. From durable helmets to full-body suits, the range of so-called personal protective equipment (PPE) includes almost everything necessary to ensure worker safety in any kind of worksite. There’s no doubt that, for many occupations, this kind of equipment is absolutely necessary.

Today’s working person often faces a number of dangers on a fairly routine basis. Construction sites are fraught with falling objects that could cause fatal injuries. Medical labs contain sensitive biological materials that can induce severe illness.

Certain industrial sites may have heat-generating equipment that might cause flammable clothing to catch on fire. The list of potential hazards goes on and on, but the right equipment and apparel, plus a little common sense, is usually enough to prevent injury.

As a supplier of high-grade workplace uniforms since 1932, Prudential Overall Supply is proud of the role it has played—and continues to play—in keeping workers safe from harm through innovating the PPE industry. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that the workers haven’t always been able to access this kind of quality protective gear. The relatively safe working environment that so many benefit from today is the result of a long history of innovations that were engineered by a number of enterprising individuals.

Let’s look at the history of personal protective equipment by charting the development of certain types of safety gear that we so often take for granted today.


Protective gloves have been around for thousands of years. In fact, they even get a mention in Homer’s Odyssey, which dates back to the eighth century B.C.; this ancient poem includes a brief description of Laertes using gloves to protect his hands from thorns as he works away in his garden. The ancient Greek historian Xenophon also records that the Persians of his time wore gloves to guard their hands from the cold.

Down through the centuries, gloves also came to be a fashion statement of sorts, favored by royalty and other eminent persons. Yet the common worker used them as well; for example, during the Middle Ages, masons would wear sheepskin gloves when handling hazardous tools or materials. Also, leather gloves were commonly used by hunters.

These days, there are many types of gloves used on jobsites, all of them with the purpose of protecting the hands from harm of some kind. Prudential sells several types of gloves, including fleece gloves that provide insulation in cold environments.

Hard Hats

The idea of using protective gear to keep one’s head safe from hard objects is not a new one, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve ever seen a movie depicting warfare in ancient or medieval times. In fact, helmets used for this purpose date back to the 10th century B.C.—and possibly even before.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that working people were able to use headgear to keep their skulls safe from danger. Workers in shipbuilding yards hit upon the idea of putting tar on their hats and then setting them out in the sun to dry. This created a tough durable hat that could protect their heads from the danger posed by falling objects.

Around the same time, a New York firefighter named Henry T. Gratacap devised a helmet intended specifically for those in his line of work. Gratacap’s basic design survives largely intact, to this day, in his chosen profession.

In 1898, a California businessman named Edward Dickinson Bullard began selling protective headgear made out of leather. His business did pretty well for years, until the outbreak of World War I gave him an idea to upgrade his leather hats. Bullard’s son was a combatant in WWI; when he returned to the U.S. after his tour, he brought with him the steel helmet he had worn as a soldier. This gave Bullard an idea: Why not use a similar type of headgear for workers on construction sites and related environments? The so-called “hard hat” was born.

Today, the hard hat is required in many kinds of worksites. Prudential’s line of products includes snap-on hoods and face masks that are designed to provide additional protection for workers who wear hard hats. It’s also worth pointing out that some types of headgear can do more than merely guard the skull from external objects. So-called “hi-visibility” hats help employees stay safe in environments where sight is often obscured.

Safety Goggles

Welders, lab workers, and other persons who work in hazardous environments can thank safety goggles for protecting their eyesight. It took a while, though, for anyone to come up with the idea for special eyewear to protect workers’ sight from external threats.

While eyewear used to magnify poor sight has been around for centuries, the real safety breakthrough came when the African-American inventor Powell Johnson patented (U.S. Pat #234,039) his “eye protectors” in 1880. During the 20th century, demand increased for high-quality eye protection, as individuals in various industries found a need for such gear. This led to further refinements of the basic design.

Nowadays, a good pair of safety goggles is often capable of performing a number of valuable functions: protecting the eyes from UV rays, chemicals, and other hazards, as well as enhancing the sight.


This type of workwear helps ensure the safety of personnel by providing a continuous clothing surface that keeps out many types of hazardous materials, such as molds, and/or minerals, such as asbestos; it can also protect the worker against the damaging effects of excessively high (or low) temperatures. This clothing tends to be made from highly dense yet flexible materials that keep hazards out while allowing the worker full freedom of movement.

In the 19th century, firefighters began using special protective clothing intended to shield them from the various dangers associated with the profession. At first, wool uniforms were used to supply a degree of protection from severe heat conditions. For firefighters, progress was slow; it wasn’t until the post-WWII years that their uniforms began to be standardized and subject to rigorous safety standards.

While the firefighting profession went through these changes, other industries began to see the need for similar protective apparel. This led to the development of protective coveralls, which today come in many varieties to accommodate the needs of different industries.

High Visibility Shirts

Easily one of the most common pieces of protective apparel offered by the PPE industry, the modern hi-vis shirt has unexpected origins. The very first high visibility piece of clothing had nothing to do with PPE technology. Instead, its discovery was a lucky accident caused by an American man named Bob Switzer in the 1930s. Bob attempted to customize his wife’s wedding dress with a fluorescent paint he’d created, and he inadvertently produced the world’s first, and likely only, hi-vis wedding dress.

Fashion choices aside, the technology stuck, and hi-vis apparel quickly gained popularity in a number of industries where clear visibility in a variety of conditions was necessary.

Today, high visibility clothing is one of the most important components of workers’ uniforms in order to ensure PPE compliance. It’s also equally popular with hobbyists, cyclists, and runners who spend time on or near roads and highways.

At Prudential Overall Supply, we’ve created a range of high and enhanced visibility clothing pieces to suit a variety of industries and occupations. Our high-visibility shirts are ANSI 107-2015 Class 2 Level 2 compliant and offer 360-degree visibility. For extra durability, each shirt is also made using a rip stop polyester-cotton blend.

Prudential Overall Supply – Driving PPE Innovation

Prudential prides itself on being at the forefront of PPE innovation and invention. Created using registered Nomex material, our flame-resistant jackets and overalls are popular in a variety of industries with open flame exposure, while our enhanced visibility shirts are ideal for working in conditions where additional visibility may be beneficial, but is not a prerequisite.

By keeping workers safe, our PPE apparel solutions help businesses across a range of industries cut down on workplace injuries and promote a safe, responsible workspace. For more information on the PPE clothing we have available, as well as the leasing and laundering options we offer our clients, get in touch with our expert team today.