Less than one in three women are given protective clothing and equipment specifically designed for women, according to a report published by the TUC last Friday.
So why do employers need to consider men and women differently when it comes to PPE?
“PPE cannot protect a worker from hazards if it does not fit. Equipment designed for men may not fit women properly due to differences in body size, height and composition”, says Hongwei Hsiao, chief of the Protective Technology Branch with NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research.
“Women are not just [the] ‘small size’ of men; their body configurations … are different from those of men.”
Only 3 in 10 women have PPE that fits women
Despite a legal duty on bosses to provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to their staff free of charge, only 3 in 10 women (29%) told a survey that the PPE they wear to keep them safe at work is specifically designed for women.
Women responding to the survey work in a range of jobs, including in the emergency services, retail and manufacturing, engineering and scientific research.
Ill-fitting clothing creates hazards at work
Many reported that ill-fitting PPE which isn’t designed to protect women workers gets in the way of them doing their job safely. For example, the wrong shoes or overalls can increase the chances of tripping, and safety harnesses, belts and body armour can rub against the skin if they do not accommodate breasts or hips.
- More than half of women (57%) responding to the survey said that their PPE sometimes or significantly hampered their work – including 95% of women working in emergency services.
- More than 2 in 5 (41%) women said that the protective trousers that were given to them were inappropriate.
- More than 1 in 3 (35%) found their overalls unsuitable for carrying out their work duties.
Shari Franklin Smith, senior technical service specialist for food, beverage and agriculture/oil and gas, petrochem industries for 3M; and Laurie Wells, senior regulatory affairs specialist at the St. Paul, MN-based company, wrote in a joint email to S+H.
“Literally, from head to toe, ill-fitting PPE can cause safety hazards: reduced dexterity from oversized gloves, baggy coveralls catching on equipment, tripping because footwear or shoe covers are too large.”
Workers likely to remove uncomfortable PPE equipment
Eyewear too, is a particular consideration where each employee should be considered as an individual and one size definitely does not fit all. There are significant variances in facial structure among men and women – safety eyewear can be one of the hardest types of PPE to fit.
Considering that approximately 90 percent of eye injuries are preventable through the use of proper protective eyewear, it is important not to underestimate the value of achieving the best possible fit for each individual worker. Ill-fitting eyewear can allow debris to enter the eyes, while slipping, fogging, and soreness contribute to worker distraction, loss of productivity, and even the removal of eyewear.
Indeed new YouGov research undertaken on behalf of Specsavers Corporate Eyecare reveals that almost a quarter of employees (24%) admitted to removing safety eyewear even when they knew it was not safe to do so, because their safety glasses were not comfortable.
Employers acknowledge workers could risk safety by removing uncomfortable, ‘ugly’ PPE
More worryingly, 35% of employers questioned admitted that they believed their employees would remove uncomfortable safety eyewear and carry on working anyway.
It seems aesthetics are important too, with almost three-quarters of employees (73%) admitted they would be more likely to wear safety glasses if they liked the appearance and design. This compares to a very similar 74% of employers who thought that pleasing aesthetics would make employees more likely to wear their safety eyewear.
Jim Lythgow, director of strategic alliances at Specsavers Corporate Eyecare, said:
‘It may seem fairly obvious that it is important for safety eyewear to be comfortable but the actual figures of the number of employees who have removed safety eyewear, when it is not safe to do so, due to lack of comfort, may be pretty worrying for employers. Perhaps more surprising is the number of employers and employees who place importance upon the design and appearance of safety eyewear. Far from being purely a practical tool, it seems that safety eyewear must be visually appealing to encourage employees to actually wear it.
Prescription safety eyewear is the way forward – for all employees
While not an issue only related to female employees, Specsavers are keen to stress the importance of prescription safety eyewear for each employee, both male and female, rather than expecting employees who wear glasses to juggle two sets of eyewear. This increases the risk of discomfort and is likely to lead to workers removing their safety googles. Jim explains:
“This out-dated option causes an unacceptable refraction of light, due to the two sets of lenses, and it is clearly less comfortable to be wearing two pairs of eyewear.”
Jim also stressed that there was no need for safety eyewear to be unattractive:
“Wraparound-style glasses, like the JCB 5CX design, are becoming increasingly popular. Offering a wide range of options, with both male and female designs is often appreciated, with women’s frames tending to be slimmer and in different colour ranges.”
Hard Hats and gloves another important issue
Women often also have issues regarding the fit of hard hats. Often employers only keep a general stock of gloves and hard hats, (usually the average male size) meaning that women are left trying on several unsuitable sizes in order to find the ‘best available fit’ – leaving them vulnerable:
Jennifer Grande, safety coordinator with Collins, NY-based Gernatt Asphalt Products Inc explains:
“If gloves don’t fit right – if they are too big – they’re clumsy, and you may not be able to do your job as well,” she said. “If your hard hat falls off every time you look up, that’s not a good thing either – you may need to use one hand to hold it on.”
Pregnancy is a particular concern
The problems are particularly acute when women become pregnant. The survey showed half of women who had been pregnant had been forced to cut back on their normal duties or had to change their role in the run up to giving birth due to suitable PPE not being available or supplied to them.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady concluded:
“I’m shocked that so many women – even those working in frontline emergency services – do not have the right protective clothing to do their jobs safely.
“Bosses’ complacency risks serious injury. It shouldn’t be hard to ensure protective uniforms come in men’s and women’s sizes.”