The Superhero Ensemble: Protecting More than a Secret Identity

Posted on by Jaclyn Krah, MA
sketch by Stephen R Leonard

It’s that time of year again – the time of mall madness and wracking our brains for gift ideas. Those of us reaching for the easy stocking stuffers are perhaps sharing the same idea – DVDs of this summer’s big screen blockbusters. We noticed many were of the superhero variety (The Dark Knight Rises, Avengers, Spiderman) and being the curious types, we couldn’t help but wonder how the superheroes’ clothing etc.  keeps them out of harm’s way.    

You see, our goal here at NIOSH is to keep heroes (of all varieties) safe so that they can, in turn, do their jobs of keeping the world safe. Not all heroes are equipped with an x-gene healing factor or impermeable skin. Therefore, personal protective equipment (PPE, for those of us who know hero-lingo) plays a vital role in protecting those who protect others.

The Dark Knight Rises as a Star of PPE:

We all witnessed the danger-filled antics of Batman on the big screen. But did you know that NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory is located near where all the filming took place in Gotham (erm…Pittsburgh)? We at the lab scurried to observe the best and worst bat-centric practices of protective equipment use.

Batman himself was covered from ears to toes in a variety of PPE.  While protective ensembles are vital to shield users from hazardous environments, suits like Batman’s can have a major drawback in the form of heat stress. Protective ensembles used by workers such as those who deal with hazardous materials, firefighters, or pesticide handlers are often made of thick and heavy textiles in order to protect the wearer from the outside environment. But this barrier against hazards can mean trapping a person’s body heat within the suit. The harder the human body works, the more heat it produces. This internal heat combined with the external heat of one’s surroundings can cause a lot of strain on the body. NIOSH research will lead to improved designs to help mitigate these issues: for example, our studies that use a sweating thermal manikin to help create less burdensome materials and designs for protective clothing.  (We would not be surprised to learn that the Director of R&D at Wayne Enterprises, Dr. Lucius Fox, has been following this research for ideas on enhancing the Batsuit.)

Heat stress isn’t just a concern for those wearing body armor or Hazmat suits. It can happen to anyone involved in a work activity that raises body heat, especially when in a hot environment: construction workers under the hot sun, firefighters responding to  blaze, factory workers inside a plant, professional athletes running on a warm day, chefs cooking in a hot kitchen. The potential results include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes.  

If you are a potential candidate for heat stress, be sure to look for problematic symptoms such as a throbbing headache, chills, nausea, profuse sweating, and slurred speech. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms take the following actions immediately:

  • Take yourself out of the hot environment and if you are wearing PPE, remove it now that you are out of the hazardous area
  • Sit or lie down in a cool place
  • Slowly drink water or a sports beverage
  • If possible, soak your clothes in water or hop into a cool shower

As for the Dark Knight, our recommendation for him is to keep a water bottle in that utility belt of his and to check out the NIOSH heat stress topic page.

The “Bane” of NIOSH’s Existence

Leave it to a super villain to scoff at proper PPE. As reported by the media, Batman’s foe, Bane, wore respiratory protection to provide himself with a medicinal air-supply owing to an old injury. Due to the fact that Bane’s respirator has not been NIOSH-approved, we cannot speak to its efficiency. Remember, all respirators used in an occupational setting, whether that be fighting fires, caring for patients, or preventing world annihilation, must be tested and certified by NIOSH. Additionally, it has come to our attention that Bane has been utilizing discounted replacement parts for his respirator. This, like so many of his actions, sets a bad example. If his respirator was NIOSH-approved, as it should be, the use of replacement parts not included in the original certification would void the approval. The appeal of bargain-basement prices for such items found on discount websites might be tempting, but we must urge all heroes, super and civilian, to resist the temptation. Check the Respirator Trusted-Source Information page to see if your respirator is NIOSH-approved.



Photo courtesy of MSA

The Amazing PPE of Spider-Man


Spider-Man is another hero in the limelight lately, and nobody knows better than this guy that with great power comes great responsibility … even to one’s own safety. Spider-Man swings above the streets (and stage… see related blog)   of New York at heights that would make most of us clamp our hands over our eyes and weep pitifully. According to media footage, he relies entirely on shooters attached to his wrists that disperse adhesive “webbing” of his own technology to protect him from falls. Unfortunately, NIOSH engineers haven’t quite figured out Spider-Man’s secret (yet). So, until web shooters are available for all workers in danger of falls from significant heights, we must work with what we have and use fall protection harnesses.

In 2009 alone, there were 605 worker fatalities and an estimated 212,760 injuries each year due to accidents involving falls. Many fall injuries in occupations such as construction can be prevented with some simple harness tips.

  • First off, wear it (yup, it needed to be said)
  • Just as importantly, always stay connected to your lifeline
  • Make sure your harness fits properly around your body
  • Inspect all fall protection equipment before use, especially if you haven’t used it in a while
  • Don’t rely on your spider senses to detect open holes or areas of potentially weak support (ok, that probably didn’t need to be said – but, thought I’d mention it in case you bought The Amazing Spider-Man on DVD were caught up by the excitement of it all.)

Some awesome research has been conducted to prevent work-related injuries from falls. Check out the  Fall Injuries Prevention in the Workplace topic page to learn more about fall protection.

There are many types of PPE used in different occupations. Whether you need chemical-resistant gloves to protect your skin (or gloves to protect other people’s skin from you, in the case of Rogue) or glasses to protect your eyes from bloodborne pathogens (or to prevent your ocular laser-beam from inconveniently tearing apart buildings, like Cyclops) the right PPE can keep you safe as you save the world doing all those important things you do every day.  And who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and find some brand new PPE wrapped next to those coveted action movies this holiday season!

Visit the Personal Protective Technology Research Portfolio to learn about ongoing PPE research and activities at NIOSH.

 Jaclyn Krah, MA

Ms. Krah is a Health Communication Specialist in the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.

Posted on by Jaclyn Krah, MA

12 comments on “The Superhero Ensemble: Protecting More than a Secret Identity”

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    thanks, I believe your visitors could possibly want significantly more posts similar to this carry on the good function.

    A word of appreciation for the author.The art of performing article is fantastic. I have to appreciate writer’s precise research of this matter.

    Heat stress can be a pain for those working hazmat, as you point out. But the guys in the Level A suits have cooling vests and are limited in mobility. Those folks in “Level C” in the Decon area don’t usually get the ice-pack vest, but they’re duct/duck taped up in rain suits and SCBAs and scrubbing away. It’s easy to get overheated in Decon!

    Great topic with Hollywood included in the series. All visitors agree with the protective layers that the super heroes wear during their protection from any harm. The TERMINATOR would be left as an excuse. PPE no doubt has appeared as a boon for any hazardous environment but the tale with the workers those who ignore Safety is a issue still today to most world. Otherwise happenings can seriously role and tag with GONE IN 60 SECONDS…

    Howdy! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 4! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the superb work!

    Hello my friend! I wish to say that this article is amazing, nice written and include almost all important infos. I’d like to see more posts like this.

    You know batman and superman doesn’t even have the right protection down where they have worn their underwear wrong. lol. I have seen a few action shootings in our areas and a 5 minute scene can really take hours due to all of the safety they have to go through. I’d say, it’s all worth it.

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Page last updated: December 7, 2016