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Parachutes to PPE: Providing Safety Equipment During COVID-19

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Adventure sports materials provider NOVA has spent decades making safety equipment. But the recent COVID-19 pandemic has seen the Austrian company repurpose their products to fight viruses rather than prevent skydiving accidents.

NOVA has worked with a factory in Hungary to produce paragliders, harnesses and parachutes for 30 years. Demand for equipment has dropped off rapidly as the economic impacts of European-wide lockdown start to bite. “Many paragliding brands are produced in Asia, in Vietnam or Thailand or Sri Lanka. All these countries were affected very early, so these other companies have been cut from their supply chain,” says NOVA's managing director Sissi Eisl.

Rather than stop their production and face mandatory furloughing and layoffs, Eisl’s team, working with a Hungarian partner, have instead switched to making gowns and masks to combat the spread of COVID-19. The masks were initially issued across Hungary, but efforts to supply the equipment to the Austrian healthcare system hit a brick wall. “We got the feedback that they needed certifications for the masks and the gowns. It wasn’t easy and we were very pessimistic," says Eisl.

But a brainwave from a member of Eisl’s team changed the picture. Even if major hospitals were unable to accept the gowns, there would be many key workers in care homes, dentists, veterinary clinics and in non-healthcare settings like supermarkets and takeaways who still needed protection but weren’t bound by the same regulations.

What are the different types of PPE?

In the UK, government guidance states that PPE should only be routinely worn by workers in health and social care settings. For these workers, PPE items recommended include:
• Disposable gloves
• Disposable plastic aprons
• Disposable fluid-resistant gowns
• Surgical masks
• Fluid-resistance surgical masks

• Filtering face piece respirators
• Eye and face protection

The recommended use of these items depends on the situation faced by the worker – see this document for more information. The mandatory use of non-regulated cloth masks by the wider public has become common in countries where the lockdown has been lifted such as Spain and Germany.

The use of these masks more widely has proved divisive, however, with some international bodies like the WHO still recommending they only be used by people with symptoms of the virus or those taking care of them.

The factory has been busy. It is capable of firing out 4,000 masks per day, but Eisl foresees that as other small companies also start producing masks, supply may dwarf demand. At that point, she wants to pivot towards making more durable masks, perhaps ones customizable with company branding for the socially-distanced work meetings that may become commonplace in the near future.

For Eisl, the change has been jarring, although she is glad to be able to keep her workers employed. But ultimately, Eisl says, “We hope we can go back to paragliding as soon as possible.”