Despite calls for change over decades, women workers are still being provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for men’s bodies. It’s ill fitting, uncomfortable and has a detrimental impact on women’s health and safety, says a new report from CSA Group.
With little anthropomorphic data (sizes, body shapes and capacities) available to inform the proper design of women’s PPE, the fallback has been to use a “shrink it and pink it” approach to adapting men’s PPE to women, says Canadian Women’s Experiences with Personal Protective Equipment in the Workplace.
This approach doesn’t work because “women are not merely scaled-down versions of men,” says the report. “For example, females typically have shorter torsos and legs than males, but are wider in the chest and hips,” says Kelly Fernandes, WSPS Specialized Consultant, Occupational Hygiene. “They also have smaller hands and different sized fingers.”
As a result, fit and comfort – the two essential ingredients when it comes to the design and use of PPE – are sacrificed for women. “When PPE doesn’t fit properly, it can’t protect against workplace hazards effectively and it can lead to workplace injuries,” says Kelly. “Altering the PPE to fit, as many women are forced to do, also introduces risks.” The report’s findings support this.
Survey results troubling
Almost 3,000 Canadian women who use PPE in their jobs were surveyed for the report. More than 80% said they experience one or more problems with their PPE, including:
- improper fit (50%)
- uncomfortable to wear (43%)
- inadequate selection (35%)
Injuries and incidents related to their PPE were reported among 40% of the women. Personal anecdotes from survey recipients paint a vivid picture of the problems they experience on the job:
- “Pants don’t fit in the hips and are either too tight and uncomfortable or too loose and slipping down. Low crotches…inhibit full leg range of motion, limit my ability to step onto work platforms and climb scaffolding.”
- “Because the PPE doesn’t fit well, I tend to get caught on stuff. Railing, door knobs, any sharp corners.”
- “I have been burned hundreds of times by having sleeves and pant legs that are not long enough to provide coverage when I’m in awkward positions. (I’m a steamfitter and welder.)
- “Because my hands are small, my glove has gotten stuck between a container and a stacker and almost had the tractor trailer driver off with my hand stuck in the glove.”
The women surveyed felt they had few choices when it comes to finding solutions:
- they use PPE that is the wrong size at least some of the time (58%)
- they don’t wear all the required PPE at work because of issues with fit (28%)
- they use a workaround to make their PPE fit (38%)
Workarounds include using rubber bands, safety pins, and/or duct tape to shorten fall-arrest gear, secure work gloves, shorten sleeves, and prevent their pant legs from tripping them.
“The fact that women have to make choices that trade one potential hazard for another is very scary,” says Kelly, “and should set off alarm bells.”
Recommendations to fix the problem
Recommendations aimed at stakeholders, including regulators, standard-setting bodies, manufacturers, suppliers and employers, set out actions to address gaps in the provision of women-specific PPE identified in the report. Those include:
- gathering Canadian-specific anthropomorphic data for women
- developing standards that explicitly recognize sex and gender differences instead of the current “gender-blind” approach
- developing women-specific PPE that’s widely available in a range of sizes
- developing and enforcing tighter, more consistent regulations around PPE fit and risks to women
- gathering information about sex and gender differences in occupational illness/injury incidence
“My take home message for employers,” says Kelly, “is to ask your supplier for PPE specifically created for women’s bodies. If they don’t have it, ask why not? Or source out the few suppliers that do have it in order to better protect your women employees who are required to use PPE.”
How WSPS can help
WSPS’ occupational hygiene consultants can help you create a PPE program for your workplace and provide PPE recommendations. Contact a consultant.
Personal Protective Equipment: The Basics (1 hour, eCourse). Find out the appropriate personal protective equipment for your workplace hazards: selection, fitting, maintenance, limitations and legal requirements.