Andy Smith
MIne-action specialist

New face/eye protection? (2008 - updated November 2009)

[There has been a long running argument about the minimum requirement for face and eye protection in demining. To read my side of this debate, click here.]

In 2005 ROFI, the suppliers of the most used protective equipment in HMA, held a workshop in Norway where selected people were invited to agree the specifications for a revised visor. I was skeptical beforehand, but the design team were impressive and ROFI were on hand for manufacture, so I left that workshop feeling cautiously optimistic.

One part of the specification that I did not likewas the requirement that the protection level of any new material used should be greater than that offered by 5mm polycarbonate. If that could be easily achieved, that was OK, but I felt that the material should not be allowed to dictate the design. To do so would cause lots of problems - not least the need for compound-curves without stretching (so thinning and stressing) any material used.

Accident evidence (and many empirical tests) indicate that untreated 5mm polycarbonate worn correctly will protect from an anti-personnel blast mine at 60cm. Nothing would reliably protect against a bounding fragmentation mine (Valmara, OZM or PROM) at that distance - so this was to be a blast visor (as required in the IMAS).

In Geneva in 2007, ROFI showed me a prototype. At the same time they gave me an armour with a visor attached to the front (an idea I first prototyped ten years ago) to comment on. The armour with attached visor is not quite right - but the next one could be. The main problem is that there is too much visor - making it impossible to wipe sweat from your forehead or scratch your nose. But the principle is sound and the protection is comfortable. It would be worth making a Mk 3 design, I believe.

By contrast, the new ROFI mask already looked promising. I took it to the field and recommended its trial. It is smaller, lighter and well ventilated.

rofi mask in Tajikistan

However, there were problems...

The mask material is a new and a very lightweight composite - offering higher fragmentation protection than 5mm polycarbonate. The eye-piece is still 5mm polycarbonate and any armour is only as strong as its weakest part so there is no real advantage in the mask being tougher than the eyepiece. I asked why it was, and was told that the material has to be that thick to prevent its edges getting damaged in transit.

The limited polycarbonate panel meant that I could not see my own feet easily and my peripheral vision was restricted. Not seeing my own feet meant that I sometimes could not see the lane marking, and this is obviously undesirable.

Like many others, I gave ROFI some feedback on the design limitations - and understood that they were going to make some changes.... A year later, I wore the mask for several days in the field. The first thing that became obvious was that the designers had not changed much from the prototype.

  1. Originally there had been a tiny gap beneath the lens through which blast could enter. This had been changed by tilting the top of the same lens forward. This has left a wide gap at the top through which dust settled on the inside of the lens while I worked. It also moved the lens away from my eyes and seemed to have introduced a problem with reflections.
  2. Peripheral vision was still all but absent.
  3. The width of the mask dictated the size of my head - which is wide. So there was a constant pressure on the sides of my head that was irritating. 
  4. The head strap was still woven in-and-out at the top of the front of the mask - not a good place to make two holes - and this could be easily avoided.
  5. The finish of the mask material (edges of new material) could be delaminated with my thumb-nail - which did not give confidence about its long-term durability.
  6. The cheek-pads got slimy with sweat and marked my face.
  7. Because no one could see that I was trying to talk to them, the mask had to be taken off for all voice communication.
  8. I had no doubt that the wearer would have their nose broken by the mask in any real close-up blast event - and could not see why this must be so? I advised that the thing should stand further away from the face, allowing impact with the chin before the nose... like a visor. 

Because the designers (not ROFI) won a design award in Norway they seem to believe that the job is done. It really is not. What we have is a Mk1 good attempt - not a finished product. After three days I was really glad to get hold of an old full-face Visor and stop feeling blinkered and uncomfortable - as if I had stepped straight out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre... This is me trying to see my feet in the desert...

mask worn in minefield

There were two people with field experience at the design workshop in Oslo. The second was with me in the desert and we both agreed that the current mask is no better than a "work-in-progress". Give us a simple visor, please. [And no, I do not recommend that body armour either.]

So please avoid buying the masks until you have done your own acceptance trials (not in the office!). Remember, you can get more than four standard visors for the price of each ROFI mask.... My current recommendation is to stick with the conventional full-face visor - also offered by ROFI.

In March 2008 I was assured that some refinements of the ROFI Mask were being undertaken, but the changes were minor and I was given no timeframe. Impatient as ever, I used some of the old visors I have had lying around for ten years (since I perfected the catenary forming method) to make this...

mask-visor made by me

With just a few hours work, this is what I call a "concept piece". The lines are not optimised and my cuts were all made by eye so they are not even symmetrical. This is not a final design, just an experiment to see whether it is possible to make a well vented and improved visor using the same material and manufacture methods as the old visor.

I think it compares favourably with both the conventional full-face visor and the new "mask".

1) All parts use a natural curve forming method (catenary) so do not need expensive moulds.

2) The weight can be 10-15% less than that of the standard full face visor (it is narrower and trimmed creatively).

3) It is all-but impossible to steam it up.

4) Peripheral vision is as good as with a full-face visor, possibly better because the eyepiece is closer to my eyes, reducing distortion and inner reflections.

5) A revised headframe to visor attachment reduces possible "wobble".

6) People can see that I am trying to talk to them - and the sound of speech vents from the visor well.

7) The material is 5mm polycarbonate - the same as the normal full-face visor - and is inexpensive compared to laminates.

8) It is possible to lengthen or shorten the whole visor face to prevent the bottom hitting the chest of short people. Thoughtful overlaps make it impossible to open the "vents" wide enough to introduce a blast-entry gap.

9) There is more material and more work involved than in making a conventional visor - and there is some waste material - so the cost over a conventional visor would go up. But not by that much.

10) The slight inner curve at the bottom makes throat and lower face protection better - and hits the face if the visor is raised, so preventing it being raised (I hope). (An either "on" or "off" visor is preferred because of the high percentage of accidents in which a visor is raised.)

I published this on the demining forums and asked if anyone could optimise a design and make them, suggesting that ROFI might like to. If anyone does - I recommend that they do not retain the raised cut-out over the nose because it is not necessary, and because I can see it when it is worn. Also, a clip on sunshade-peak would be a nice addition that would also keep the upper part from being easily scratched when it is put down carelessly.

ROFI did not reply. As far as I know now (May 2008), a UK university will be making a version in Cambodia. Because they have made very poor quality PPE in the past, there is still scope for someone else to step in... For $25k I can go finalise the design and establish production myself - as a technology transfer like my former work on visors - but I would rather you did it.

In November 2009 I did it myself - another technology transfer in which I retain no interest in the commercial exploitation of the product. I just want it to be available. It is now and can be ordered from the company that manufactures the 5mm full-face visor sold by ROFI, ForceWare and others. See secdevinc.com.