PPE in History!

February 16, 2018 3 min read

PPE in History!

Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is a common part of life today, for both people in the workplace and in the military. Even folks that don’t require them for their jobs, will most likely have used some form of PPE at least once in their lifetime. Did you ever use gloves while working in the garden? Or wear safety goggles during science experiments in school? Or don ear defenders at a racetrack?  I would imagine that most of us at some point have used some form of PPE.

However, did you know that PPE is not a modern invention. Humans have been using it for millennia and I’m not just talking for military purposes.

Early Humans

Archaeologists have argued that Between 26,000 and 30,000 years ago our distant ancestors began to use safety footwear (probably not steel toe caps)! In parts of Eurasia. Early humans began to protect their feet from the rigours of the terrain and harsh climate conditions at the time. Erik Trinkaus a professor of anthropology, studied the foot bones of western Eurasian humans from the middle and upper Paleolithic.

His research led to the discovery that the little toes of humans from this time frame were much weaker than their earlier ancestors. Trinkaus says that the most logical cause would be the introduction of supportive footwear. Trinkaus also suggests that humans in northern climates may have been insulating their feet for up to half a million years!

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“He was wearing a filthy tunic, patched together and ugly, and around his legs he had bound leather shin-guards, patched together, to protect against scratching. He wore gloves on his hands and arms because of the brambles, and a cap of goatskin on his head, cherishing his grief.”

Homer, Odyssey. 8th century BC.

The Greek writer Homer was writing almost 3000 years ago when he wrote this passage about Laertes the father of the Hero Odysseus. He used safety gloves and protective shin guards whilst doing his chores in his orchard. A sensible chap no doubt, keeping himself safe with PPE!

 gardener wearing work gloves


In medieval times Blacksmithing was an extremely important trade and almost every village would have a forge or smithy where nails, horseshoes, doorknobs, jewellery, armour, weapons and even torture devices would be made! The Blacksmiths would need to protect themselves from the intense heat of the fire and flying sparks as well as accidently coming into contact with there work.

The Blacksmiths would wear PPE over there woollen clothing. They had long leather aprons to stop the sparks passing on to their clothes and prevent them catching fire. So, the blacksmiths were wearing PPE whilst making PPE for the knights of the medieval period. Truly health and safety conscious fellows.

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Leonardo Da Vinci, is said to have originated the the dust mask concept when he suggested that a finely woven cloth be dipped in water to protect sailors from a toxic powder weapon he had created. But there is an even earlier reference from Roman philosopher Pliny the elder describing miners using animal bladder skins as face masks to protect themselves in Roman mines from red lead oxide dust.

Modern Day

In the early days of the ship building industry, workers covered their hats with pitch (tar), and would leave out them in the sun to dry. It was a common practice for dockyard workers and sailors who were in constant danger of being hit on the head by objects dropped from ship decks as they loaded and unloaded cargo.

In the United States, the E.D. Bullard Company was a mining equipment firm in California created by Edward Dickinson Bullard in 1898, a veteran of the industrial safety business for 20 years. The company sold protective hats made of leather. His son, E. W. Bullard, returned home from World War I with a steel helmet that provided him with ideas to improve industrial safety. In 1919 Bullard patented a "hard-boiled hat" made of steamed canvas, glue and black paint. That same year, the U.S. Navy commissioned Bullard to create a shipyard protective cap that began the widespread use of hard hats.

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