For years, firefighters have been unable to use seat belts while wearing their bulky gear. Construction crews working hundreds of feet off the ground have been at risk for injuries because fall protection harnesses did not conform to their body types, and employees in many industries have used respirators that do not fit properly.
Today, a new generation of personal protective equipment makes it safer for high-risk workers to do their jobs, and work is underway to create safer industrial apparatuses, thanks in large part to the science and innovative designs developed by Hongwei Hsiao, chief of the Protective Technology Branch at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“The body of work he’s created has had an incredible impact on protecting workers,” said Dawn Castillo, director of NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research. “He is a brilliant scientist who is committed to making sure science gets put into practice.”
Size and shape information on the human body—known as anthropometry—is critical to the design of work spaces, vehicles and personal protective equipment. Hsiao is the government’s top leader in using this type of research to improve worker safety and health, and has made enormous strides in a career that has spanned 25 years.
Hsiao has collaborated with more than 50 equipment manufacturers and public and private entities to conduct studies of construction workers, farmers, truck drivers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and police.
His work on respirator users, for example, laid the foundation for a major revamping of respirator-fit test panels, which enhanced health protection for workers in many industries.
His team’s data on truck drivers is being used by manufacturers to construct next-generation truck cabs that improve safety for all motorists who share the roadways. His ongoing work is poised to improve the design of police cruisers and police protective armor.
“We are trying to design different types of systems inside a police car and develop a better computer and car interface,” Hsiao said. “These all have something to do with police body size and dimensions.”
Gordon Routley, division chief of the Montreal Fire Department, said firefighters often don’t wear seatbelts because their protective clothing is so large and they are jammed into tight cab space with other colleagues, resulting in unnecessary fatalities. He said that to improve firefighter safety, Hsiao has worked on resizing protective gear and reconfiguring the space in the fire trucks, with the hope of getting new standards adopted.
“The line of fire trucks is going to change over the next five to 10 years because of his work,” said Routley. “Changes are going to be pretty significant in terms of how cabs are configured as well as the shape and style of the clothing and equipment used by firefighters.”
Hsiao’s configurations of fall protection harnesses for the first time took into account the unique body dimensions of construction workers and how the equipment needs to be designed for women.
“The challenge is that most companies in the past used a military person’s body information to design this protective equipment, and this doesn’t fit the current worker population,” Hsiao said. “I was able to develop new theories and also make it very practical for industry to develop new sizing systems and new structures.”
Rear Admiral Margaret Kitt, NIOSH’s deputy director, said Hsiao is “making sure we are protecting all workers regardless of their gender, ethnicity or size distribution.”
Much of Hsiao’s work is done in the agency’s Occupational Anthropometry Program and Laboratory, which he helped establish in the 1990s and was the first of its kind in the government. It is equipped with state-of-the-art, three-dimensional, whole-body scanners that can provide details on everything from the face and head to hands and feet. In 2012, he took his field research one step further, developing a mobile laboratory that has traveled across the U.S. to capture data on different worker populations.
“The research he provides to manufacturers and those in charge of producing safety standards impacts our ability to protect workers—to make sure the protective equipment for workers is the best we can make and that it fits a diverse population,” said Kitt. “Hongwei is recognized as an international expert in this field.”
Hsiao, a first generation American, said his father was a civil servant who worked for the Bureau of Railroads in Taiwan and served as an inspiration for him.
“During my childhood, I knew the importance of public service. You can help more people than you can imagine,” said Hsiao. “My work provides solutions and strategies to help protect workers, which is important to the quality of life and to the safety of the country.”