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Addressing the Limitations of PPE

Developing inclusive and sustainable PPE for diverse bodies in lab environments

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a...

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Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a cornerstone of safety protocols in laboratories, designed to shield staff from hazardous chemicals, biological agents, and other risks. However, traditional PPE can fall short, failing to provide universal protection. Ill-fitting or poorly designed gear can leave gaps in defense, leading to exposure and injury. For PPE to effectively safeguard all lab workers, it must accommodate diverse body types and physical differences. 

This Q&A with Beau Wangtrakuldee, PhD, co-founder and CEO of AmorSui, explores the journey from personal injury to establishing new standards in protective gear for diverse body types, highlighting the need for safer, more sustainable solutions in the laboratory environment.

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Q: Could you tell our readers a bit about your background?

Beau Wangtrakuldee, PhD
Beau Wangtrakuldee, PhD

A: I am a PhD chemist by trade and founded AmorSui after a personal experience with inadequate PPE. Before founding my company, I led research and development efforts for new prostate cancer therapies as a postdoctoral fellow at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. After my fellowship, I served as a consultant to emerging biotech companies. Helping them advance their science fueled my technical approach to developing AmorSui products and building our brand mission to make PPE safer and more sustainable. 

Q: I understand that you had a critical incident in a lab that sparked your passion for this research and design focus. Would you mind sharing that story?

A: Yes, the accident in the lab is a core part of the AmorSui story. During my last year of PhD studies, I was working on a new anti-cancer drug when I was severely burned in a chemical spill after I accidentally knocked over a beaker full of chemicals onto my lap.

I carried out an Ugi reaction, which consisted of a mix of isocyanide, carboxylic acid, amine, and aldehyde in methanol as a solvent. Isocyanide is a highly toxic chemical that can cause severe inflammation and irritation to [the] eyes, nose, [and throat. In extreme poisoning cases, it can cause cardiac arrest. In combination with methanol, which is a solvent that absorbs through the skin readily, I was in a hazardous situation during the spill. The material on the lab coat was regular cotton, which quickly absorbed the toxic chemicals. This left me out of the lab for weeks while I recovered.

Q: How did that incident inspire you to innovate?

A: After the accident, I was looking for a better lab coat that would fit me and found that the only available options were just smaller sizes of menswear. I shared this frustration with my female colleagues and was surprised we faced similar challenges, including being injured due to ill-fitting PPE. We all agreed that we needed products with narrower shoulders, more room in the chest and hips, and consideration for those with shorter builds. These options weren’t available anywhere. This conversation led to the idea that became the primary value proposition of AmorSui in its early days, which was to develop PPE that prioritized both safety and comfort for diverse body types. With all our products, we consider unique features that accommodate all bodies and provide the necessary protection without sacrificing comfort or sustainability.

Q: How does the fabric (and any treatment of it) aid in repelling or preventing the absorption of chemicals?

A: Our products are made of a proprietary fluid-repellent and anti-microbial blend of fabrics. When liquids or chemicals spill on the fabric, they do not immediately absorb, giving wearers plenty of time to remove the garment without risking injury. AmorSui’s lab coat fabric blends polyester, rayon, and spandex, while our isolation gown is 100% polyester. Because of their fluid-repellency, they’re safer than traditional disposable or lower-quality PPE. In addition to being highly fluid-repellent and much safer than disposable PPE and other low-quality products, it is also 100 percent recyclable. It can be shredded or turned into a pulp to produce car interiors, airplane seats, artificial joints/bones, tarp fabrics, and more at the end of its life. 

Q: In your opinion, what are the safety and health issues with PPE?

A: As I mentioned earlier, the size and protective properties of the fabrics are the biggest concern with current PPE options. When I first started AmorSui, I focused primarily on the safety and inclusivity of PPE for women because it was the most pressing issue I saw in my workplace. At the time, and still today, most PPE is designed for the average white male’s body shape and functional capacities. Poor-fitting PPE on women presents safety hazards like extra material snagging in machinery, sleeves that slip and expose skin to toxic chemicals, and more. Additionally, disposable PPE allows 4 to 14 times the expected amount of infectious fluids to penetrate through them. 

Q: Are there significant sustainability issues at play in lab coverings?

A: Disposable PPE is polluting the environment at unprecedented rates. This is highly apparent in the healthcare industry where, at the peak of COVID-19, over 200M tons of disposable medical waste was sent to landfills daily, and 57 million pounds of single-use plastic entered the ocean. I’d be remiss not to mention that the U.S. healthcare system is such a large waste producer that if it were its own country, it would be 11th in the world for GHG pollution. Beyond the sheer amount of PPE being thrown away, the plastic in PPE can take up to 400 years to decompose. 

The manufacturing process also contributes to environmental destruction. Disposable PPE begins with raw material extraction, followed by manufacturing, processing, and transportation, which release harmful pollutants into the environment. 

Q: How do you envision these safety and sustainability issues can be addressed to better support those working in labs?

A: For years, the PPE industry has relied on disposable options that don’t provide any value to users and negatively impact health, safety, and sustainability. We’re building a platform to make safety and sustainability easier for labs and healthcare workers. The platform will be a marketplace where everyone can buy quality, size-inclusive, and circular items, track their progress toward carbon emission reduction, and get rewards for adopting more sustainable practices. Our team is building out the technology behind this marketplace and hope to have it available within the next year or so. There’s a lot more to come! 

Beau Wangtrakuldee, PhD, is a multifaceted innovator who has taken a technical approach to drive global impact in health and safety radically. As the co-founder and CEO of AmorSui, the first global protective wear brand for circular personal protective equipment items and subscriptions, she is on a mission to protect the health of people and the planet. Beau led AmorSui to serve over 30,000 global customers and leading R&D institutions such as Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Dupont, and Amgen.