Ill-Fitting PPE for Women
Every employer knows that personal protective equipment, or PPE, is required for workers who are carrying out a specific range of tasks where there are one or more potential hazards. PPE includes clothing and accessories that are commonly used such as hard hats, boots and gloves. It also includes high visibility clothing, protective gear for eyes and ears, fleeces and overalls as well as clothing to protect employees against the weather. In particular roles, workers may have a need for knee pads, anti stab jackets, safety harnesses and respiratory protective equipment (RPE).
Besides ensuring that workers are properly trained and informed about using PPE, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide suitable gear that is fit for the purpose for which it is required, at no cost to the employee. Employers must also ensure clothing and equipment is maintained, carefully stored and cleaned as needed.
In April 2017, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) issued a new guidance paper for representatives about PPE for women. This was as a result of research that had revealed difficult issues when it comes to the provision of women’s PPE. The guidance paper was based on data gathered from 2,655 responses to a TUC survey and 3,086 responses to a Prospect/WES survey in 2016.
- Only 85% of women reported that provision of PPE by the employer was always the case
- In terms of maintenance, 10% of employers did not replace PPE
- More than half of employers did not pay for PPE to be cleaned
Many women who participated in the surveys reported that PPE often hampered their work and was uncomfortable to wear. This is in spite of the fact that the regulations stipulate that protective clothing and equipment must be fit for purpose. The problem is that most PPE is designed for men, so finding appropriate sizes and shapes for women can be a struggle. In the US, for instance, RPE is manufactured to a standard male face model, rendering it a poor fit for women as well as for some men from specific ethnic minority groups. The same can be said of other types of PPE, including boots, eye protection, hard hats, gloves and overalls.
Employers tend to use the same PPE for women as for men, often simply selecting smaller sizes. This is not a satisfactory outcome, however, and can even lead to safety issues due to the differing body shapes of men and women. For example, safety harnesses to prevent falls are strapped on to the body, and because there are marked differences in the size and proportion of male and female hips, chests and thighs, women may find the fit to be poor, therefore compromising their personal safety.
The 2016 survey responses demonstrated that:
- Only 29% of women use PPE that is specifically designed for women
- Many women found that ill-fitting PPE was not suitable for the job they had to do
- 41% of women said the trousers provided were unsuitable, while 10% found them good
- 35% of women found overalls were a poor fit generally, while 10% found them good
Solutions for women’s PPE
Manufacturers can take steps to adjust their products to fit women more precisely as long as suppliers and employers create demand. This means that employers are in a strong position to help resolve the problem of inadequate PPE for women, as are suppliers.
Firstly, employers should actively seek out and choose suppliers that provide a range of sizes suitable for both men and women. For example, Seton is currently working on a new range of PPE for women in a drive to improve comfort and fit as well as address safety issues caused by ill-fitting gear. Seton is one of the world’s leading manufacturers and suppliers, with businesses in 18 countries.
Secondly, if employers still have issues over the suitability of women’s PPE, they should consult with manufacturers and suppliers to remedy any problems.
Thirdly, a good range of sizes should be provided for both women and men. It should be possible for women to try on several sizes or types of PPE to ensure that the clothing and equipment is the best fit.
Good employers will put in place mechanisms to ensure they can get feedback on the suitability of PPE. Reports can then go to occupational health providers or to safety committees. Formal reporting procedures as well as anonymous surveys will ensure feedback is constructive and helpful, and that the correct range of PPE, particularly for women, is being provided.
Finding the right PPE for women
Responsible employers will consider the following when identifying PPE requirements:
- What are the safety issues for women in the workplace?
- Specifically, who is exposed to what hazard?
- How long are they exposed for?
- How much are they exposed to?
Employers should choose equipment and clothing products that are CE marked in accordance with the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002. Equipment must suit the user in terms of fit, size and weight. It’s worth remembering that PPE chosen by women is more likely to be used by them.
PPE items should be compatible when worn together so that safety glasses do not, for example, interfere with the seal of a respirator. Adequate instruction and training should be given so that all employees understand how to keep themselves and others safe at all times.
Among employees, it’s important to reinforce that wearing PPE is essential, no matter how small a job may be or how long it might take. Suppliers are generally very knowledgeable about what clothing, accessories and equipment is appropriate to particular tasks, so don’t hesitate to consult with them before making a decision.