Female Workers Face Struggles with Access to Well-Fitting PPE

A major issue facing women in Occupational Health and Safety is the fit of protective clothing, which for many still doesn’t take into account the fact that workers come in all shapes and sizes. This lack of proper consideration seems to strongly affect female workers.

What are the dangers?

An article published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2016 entitled “Access to properly fitting personal protective equipment for female construction workers” highlights the difficulties that notably female construction workers face with regards to access and fit of protective clothing, including gloves, harnesses, safety vests, work boots, outwear, etc. The authors of the article found that, generally, equipment provided to female workers was too large. The study also noted that female workers faced other issues, such as having to purchase their own PPE or being exposed to health and safety hazards stemming from ill-fitting protective clothing.

Some revealing statistics

In April, British trade union Prospect revealed the results of a study it conducted on PPE. The study highlighted that the most glaring issues arose with regards to protective clothing such as overalls, jackets, and trousers. For example, the study found that for trousers, 16.6% of male respondents said that their trousers didn’t fit well, while 48.5% of women surveyed said that they didn’t fit well. The study raised similar numbers for overalls: 15.3% of males surveyed said that their overalls didn’t fit well, while 44.7% of female participants said that they didn’t fit well.

Manufacturers play a large part

In 2006, the Ontario Women’s Directorate (OWD) and the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA) published a report entitled “Personal Protective Equipment for Women — Addressing the Need.” The report raised a number of questions on the availability and use of PPE for women.

A closer look at women in health care

According to Statistics Canada, women make up a large part of the health-care profession. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that women in the health-care sector made up 52% of general practitioners and family physicians, 72% of psychologists, 61% of pharmacists, 87% of social workers, 79% of physiotherapists, 89% of licensed practical nurses, and 90% of registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses.

Conscious or unconscious bias?

Ill-fitting protective clothing is dangerous for any worker, so why is this only recently becoming a concern for women? In her 2019 book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, author and feminist advocate Caroline Criado Perez says data exists that proves women may have smaller hands than men. She writes:

“There is plenty of data showing that women have, on average, smaller hands than men, and yet we continue to design equipment around the average male hand as if one-size-fits-men is the same size as one-size-fits-all. This one-size-fits-men approach to supposedly gender-neutral products is disadvantageous to women.”

Where do we go from here?

Women in both male-dominated and, surprisingly, female-dominated professions seem to be facing this issue. With the current pandemic reshaping every aspect of our work lives, we could see a push in a positive direction as COVID-19 has brought to light the lack of adequate PPE in the health-care sector – and in many other sectors.

Ultimately, though, access to properly fitting protective clothing perhaps needs to be refocused as a worker issue rather than a gender issue, because when it comes to the health and safety of each and every worker, there should be no excuses and no exceptions.

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