As Sandy Seidman tells it, the first disposable face mask was created by the night janitor at a brassiere factory in Brooklyn.
"It was dusty, he had to sweep up, so he took one of the cups and looped it over his ears with a rubber band," said Seidman, who, coincidentally, grew up in Brooklyn.
Seidman is the president and founder of The Safety Zone LLC, a 35-year-old Essex-based company that sells protective equipment, including welder's aprons, latex gloves and, of course, the now familiar face masks, to more than 1,800 wholesalers and retailers worldwide.
Most of the time, the firm's biggest sellers are its gloves — gloves for the meat processing and food service industries, gloves to protect the hands from cleaners and chemicals and gloves for doctors' offices.
But last week, as concerns over the spread of swine flu escalated, orders for the N95 respirator masks The Safety Zone stocks poured in, said Seidman, 61.
In fewer than five days, the company's forklifts cleared the shelves of the masks, whose use has been recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help prevent the spread of germs. Worn properly, the N95 masks filter out 95 percent of particles three microns or larger. (A grain of talcum powder, for example, is about 10 microns in size, and a red blood cell is eight microns.)
The demand for masks has dropped, but this week customers are clamoring for gloves, in particular the kind used by janitorial services responsible for disinfecting schools and offices that have been closed because of potential swine flu exposure, Seidman said.
"We've sold 200,000 cases of gloves in two days, what we would normally sell in two weeks," Seidman said.
Despite the increase in sales, "from a business side, it's not good. It takes us about 60 to 90 days to replenish our inventory," Seidman said.
When you have a high demand event, trying to estimate how much inventory to keep on hand without affecting your costs becomes a challenge, explained Sandy Seidman's son, Lon Seidman, 32, a partner in the company.
Last year, the privately owned business had more than $100 million in revenue, Sandy Seidman said.
In 1974, Sandy Seidman launched the business from a spare bedroom in his Westbrook home. When he wasn't in the office tapping out invoices on a manual typewriter, he was selling gloves from the trunk of his car.
For its first five years, the company went by the name Seidman Associates. Then, in 1978, Sandy Seidman met a Jewish gentleman "in his late 80s" at a lunch counter in Hartford who urged him to rename his company. "'Seedman? Sideman? Who knows how to pronounce it!'" he recalled his friend saying.
A few weeks later, The Safety Zone was born. In need of a logo, Seidman's acquaintance designed a caricature of a man wearing a protective apron, gloves, goggles, head gear and ear protection — to this day the company's logo.
Today, The Safety Zone employs 180 people in the U.S. and has offices and warehouses in Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Florida, California and three countries in Asia.
Despite its size, the company is still very much a hands-on operation: Take a close look at the gloved hands featured on its product packaging and its 40-page catalog.
"Those are my hands," Lon Seidman said. "When they need a hand model, they call me."Copyright © 2015, CT Now