Wait … That’s Plastic? (Safety Edition)

7 things you might not know are made with plastics

We all know bicycle helmets are made with shock absorbing plastics to help protect our noggin. But we also trust plastics with our lives in some perhaps more surprising ways.

No plastics in “bullet-proof” glass and vests, right? Um…

bulletproof plastics safetyQuick quiz: is bullet-proof[1] glass made with glass or plastics? Answer: yes. Typically, it’s made with both. The glass and polycarbonate plastics work together to provide a layer of transparent protection for bank tellers, high security military areas, law enforcement officials… even the Declaration of Independence.

And those bullet-proof vests worn by the people who protect us? Surely they’re not made with plastics, right? Well… those heroic men and women actually wear high-performance plastic fabrics that are lightweight and comfortable—and tough enough to resist a bullet by acting as a net-like device and deforming the bullet. Helping protect the lives of those who protect us.

Motorcyclists wear only leather to protect themselves… not.

motorcycle safety plasticsWhile leather historically has been the go-to material for protecting bikers when they lay down their machine, there’s a newish player: plastics. A couple decades ago, the CEO of a motorcycle jeans company agreed to be dragged behind a motorcycle on an asphalt racetrack wearing innovative new jeans knit with high-tech plastic fibers that dissipate the heat/friction away from the body. He got up to 62 miles per hour… and then just walked away (before a stunt man took over for further tests). As a result, bikers today can help protect themselves against road rash and abrasions—with advanced plastics, similar to those used in the bullet-proof glass/vests above. 

Car safety brought to you by plastics?

Car Safety PlasticsNext time you’re in a car, look around and count the parts made without plastics. Other than leather seats, it’s not much. Even the window safety glass is made with plastics: a thin plastic film sandwiched between glass helps protect occupants in a crash. And those other safety features we all rely on—industrial strength polyester seat belts, flexible nylon/polyester air bags, cushioned foam dashboards, shock absorbing bumpers—are made with reassuringly tough plastics.

Have you noticed that carmakers are increasing their use of plastics throughout vehicles? One serious reason: many plastics absorb more crash energy than metals in an accident, so the car takes more of a beating… instead of you and your loved ones.

Goggles are glass, right? Uh, probably not…

Sports Safety Plastics GogglesWhether you’re riding a motorcycle, skiing, or swimming, it’s probably not the best idea to place breakable glass lenses close to your eyeballs. That’s why most sports safety goggles today are made with tough, shatter-resistant plastics, such as polycarbonate. You can even get prescription lenses, camouflage patterns for hunting, and designs that range from hipster to punk.

And for workplace hazards, goggle makers have turned predominately to lightweight polycarbonate plastics to help protect our workers’ eyes… while providing a crystal clear view in many conditions.

You can’t fight fires wearing plastics… right?

Firefighters Safety Gear PlasticsNot too long ago, our firefighters had to face the flames in gear that wasn’t exactly heat-resistant. Fortunately, turnout gear (firefighters’ personal protective equipment including jacket, pants, and boots) has advanced: for about half a century, manufacturers have used flame-resistant plastic fibers/fabrics that can stand up to extreme temperatures while helping keep our fearless fire fighters insulated from chemicals, extensive heat, and water. These plastic fibers are tough and lightweight and effective—some of today’s turnout gear can withstand temperatures up to 1,200 degrees. That means… our protectors are better protected by plastics.

Why do we call them sun “glasses?”

Sunglasses Plastics SafetySeriously, there typically isn’t anything “glass” about sunglasses. Plastic frames, plastic lenses, metal hinges. Thankfully, today’s sunglasses make more than just a fashion statement—they provide some major safety benefits that help protect your eyes, thanks to the versatility of plastics, including: UV protection, glare reduction, head gripping safety, and shatter-resistance. Style and safety. That’s quite a statement.

Those flexible aluminum space suits are really cool… waaaaaait a minute!

Spacesuit safety plasticsEver wonder what those space suits are made with? It’s got to be flexible. And strong. Oh, and it’s got to shield against radiation. And hot and cold temperature swings of 500+ degrees f. (during the first moonwalk, daytime temps reached 250+ and nighttime temps sunk to minus 385+. Yikes!). These suits actually are made with layers of plastics that are tough enough to stand up to the extreme conditions space throws at them. And these same plastics also are used down here on Earth… to protect our protectors, to protect us, and to protect our loved ones against many risks.

Bullet-proof glass/vests, motorcycle jeans, car safety, goggles, firefighter gear, sunglasses, space suits … surprised?

See the original list of 6 things you might not know are made with plastics… and the Sequel… plus the Great Outdoors Edition… and the Sports Edition.

[1] While people commonly say “bullet-proof”, “bullet-resistant” is more accurate since materials cannot provide complete protection against all types of bullets or multiple hits in the same location.