In Italy, safety has always been considered ‘for sissies.’ In the workplace and now in the health emergency (just consider the masks worn with the nose outside, as hats or chin straps). It is a cultural but also a design issue

* Odo Fioravanti, industrial designer

For several months we have heard lots of talk about PPE, which stands for Personal Protection Equipment. I’ve even heard people – drunk on quarantine? – make jokes about the acronym. In other countries these devices have been talked about for decades. Not because they are more used to pandemics, but because the terminology extends to all kinds of protective gear, also for work. PPE, in short, refers to things people use, to be safe while performing potentially dangerous actions. For us Italians, on the other hand, DPI (Dispositivi di Protezione Individuali) was a new term, associated with the coronavirus emergency: practically a synonym for surgical masks.

These observations suffice to make us understand how far we are in Italy from having absorbed a sensible culture of production in the workplace.

Just consider the cover of Macho Man by the Village People (1978). The second guy from the left is David Hodo, and in this fantastic game of costumes he represented the construction worker with a tool belt and protective hard hat. Already, 40 years ago, PPE was so much a part of American culture that it could become part of a playful masquerade. In those years, and for many in Italy, the image of the construction worker was instead that of a guy in a tank top, loafers and a typical handmade newspaper hat. Which speaks worlds about safety on the worksite.

The truth is that our population, especially the male side of it, has always shunned protection. Protecting oneself on the job has always been a gesture that fell into the silent cultural trap of breaking with an idea of masculine invulnerability, driven by the misunderstanding by which protection was seen as an admission of fallibility, in the fear of “sissified” weakness, ruining the image of the manly, hetero, virile and invincible male. The result? An incessant litany of death and injury.

The first time I wore volleyball knee pads in my hometown I was told that they were “for girls.” The same thing happened when I donned a motorcycle helmet. While on the iconic TV series Chips, the camera gazed for entire seconds at the straps on the helmets of the two protagonists, with decidedly cool overtones.

Even when we have to wear it, we don’t take protection seriously. As if to say: I’ll do it to keep you happy, but I’m not scared of anything. This happens in all kinds of ways: helmets rakishly perched, unfastened, safety harnesses worn but not attached to their lifelines. And, in the present circumstances, masks that cover the mouth but not the nose, or worn like a forlorn cap to celebrate the last waltz of intelligence.

But the time has come to say it, loud and clear: this rhetoric of “it can’t happen to me” has truly lasted long enough. Because – and this is one of the few good things about the virus – in today’s emergency the safety of others depends directly on our own. Paying no attention because “it won’t happen to me” has suddenly become egotistical as well as a stupid. Unacceptable.

What can be done, then, to make PPE more appetizing to reluctant full-blooded Italians? Lots of stuff. The first thing is a change of cultural position, to construct not only acceptance but also aspiration. For years the producers of tobacco products have built an imaginary in which smoking was a gesture of great emotional impact, perfect for all occasions. Why not do the same thing with products that are good for us? The second thing has to do with useability. From protective footwear to masks, a lousy fit is a constant, wearability zero. Finally there’s the image: to make something ugly or beautiful has little impact on costs and production, but an enormous impact on the desire to wear it.

The profound change to set in motion, then, is to design PPE not as protection for victims of fear, but as accessories for those who have courage and responsibility, who take life seriously. Think armor, superpowers, shields, instead of thinking hospitals and orthopedic contraptions. It’s not impossible: welding helmets, for example, have had styling like that of skateboards for some time now, giving a cold object a sort of playful dimension that makes you want to use it.

PPE, at this point, is all around us, and it will stay there for some time. The hope is that the design focus on masks will spread to all the protective devices for people who work, in any sector. Maybe one day we can all be proud to feel like David Hodo.


Cover photo: David Hodo, Village People.