TAKEAWAY: PPE is crucial for a safe and healthy workforce in numerous sectors and roles. Read on to discover the concerns around ill-fitting PPE (especially for women) and what employers can do to ensure PPE fits correctly.
Recent news suggests that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is not appropriately manufactured for women. Ill-fitting PPE may be unfit for its purpose and can cause increased injury rates. Therefore, employers must understand their role in ensuring PPE fits each worker appropriately.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the central problem of ill-fitting PPE for women. Most frontline healthcare workers are women, yet PPE generally fits a standard male body best. What was previously anecdotal evidence is now supported by studies indicating the need for better-fitting PPE, especially for women.
The problems with PPE for women
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an indication that PPE was not well-designed for women. However, there was limited academic evidence to back up the claim. The issues came to the forefront with the dangers frontline health workers faced during the pandemic. Recent studies confirm the need for a more robust approach to well-fitting PPE, especially for women.
A 2021 qualitative survey of 248 healthcare workers from various roles and settings during the pandemic showed a statistically significant link between women suffering more with poor-fitting PPE than men. These findings were apparent in specific PPE categories, including masks, goggles, visors, and gowns.
Around 55 percent of women but only 13 percent of men reported their surgical gowns fitting large. Women were almost twice as likely as men to have oversized surgical masks.
Problems with poor-fitting PPE are not exclusive to women. Both sexes felt hampered by the fit of their PPE, but the problems were more apparent for females. Widespread issues indicate a need for a wider variety of sizing and more personalized options to get the right fit.
Workers must also understand how to use and wear PPE safely. Several workers modified their PPE to make it a better fit. Doing so often poses additional problems, rendering the equipment ineffective.
Another study on healthcare workers in Singapore indicated that PPE-associated side effects were higher in women.
Issues with poorly-fitting PPE
PPE minimizes employee exposure to hazards that can cause serious illnesses or injuries. Hard hats, earmuffs, earplugs, gloves, respirators, vests, full-body suits, glasses, masks, and shoes are all examples of typical workplace PPE.
Poorly fitting PPE can cause problems for any male or female worker. Some of the issues include:
- Masks and goggles that are too big do not offer an effective seal and can increase exposure to viruses or harmful substances.
- When masks and goggles fit too tightly, they can make workers feel distracted and uncomfortable. They may also cause pressure injuries or tension headaches when worn too long.
- Gowns that are too long can increase the risk of tripping and falling, thereby increasing the likelihood of injury.
- Large-fitting gloves do not seal properly, thereby increasing the risk of infection. They can also make handling tools and equipment difficult and job tasks more challenging.
- Baggy vests can get caught in equipment, risking serious injuries.
- Fall protection harnesses can protect those within a specific weight range. Workers with body weight above the recommended range will require a different-sized harness or a custom harness to help keep them safe.
What can employers do to help mitigate the issue of poorly-fitting PPE?
Many issues around poorly fitting PPE need to be addressed at a Government level, by large organizations such as the WHO, and at a supplier level. Doing so will help ensure better PPE sizing, fitting, and availability.
Employers can also help ensure PPE is the best size and fit for workers. Action points include the following.
Choose the correct type of PPE for workers
Employers should conduct a workplace hazard assessment to determine potential dangers. The evaluation includes hazard identification and a plan to minimize and control hazards. Part of the plan can include selecting appropriate PPE for workers in high-risk roles.
Employers may need better-quality PPE to ensure they have a range of sizing options and well-made clothing and equipment to protect their workers better. Be discerning in your choices. Some companies claim to have PPE especially designed for women, but they’ve made only minimal changes, such as size or color. Employers can also involve their workers in choosing the ideal size and design of PPE.
It’s not only healthcare workers who need PPE. For example, workers in several industries, such as mining, oil and gas, transportation, manufacturing, and forestry and agriculture, work in loud environments and have an increased risk for noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
There are several steps employers can take to help reduce the incidence of NIHL in the workplace. One is selecting appropriate PPE, such as ear muffs or earplugs, to help reduce the risk of hearing loss.
Ensure equipment fits correctly
Poorly fitting equipment can render it ineffective and defeat its purpose. Employers can use organizations such as SureHire to ensure PPE is the right fit for each worker.
Respiratory protection was among the top three workplace safety violations identified by OSHA in 2022. Employers can help mitigate this risk by using Respirator-Fit (Mask-Fit) Testing for workers to help ensure the correct fit.
When respirators are the right size and fit correctly, they work as intended and reduce the risk of the employee breathing in dangerous substances that could lead to illness. Companies like SureHire offer professional quantitative and qualitative Respirator-Fit Testing based on standards and protocols from organizations like the CSA Group and OSHA.
Employers who require hearing protection for employees can choose custom-moulded earplugs to ensure a proper fit.
PPE training and maintenance
Employers must understand how to properly use PPE and the dangers of modifying clothing and equipment. When employees have the correct size and fit for their PPE, the latter should not be an issue.
PPE training sessions should cover the following:
- When to use PPE and what type to use
- How to put PPE on, adjust it, and remove it
- Equipment limitations
Employers must also establish a PPE maintenance and review program that includes workers. The plan should include how to care for and maintain PPE, when to replace it, and how to dispose of it at the end of its useful life. Regular reviews enable employers to evaluate their PPE program’s effectiveness and update it as required.
Female PPE | In conclusion
Although it has been a longstanding problem, the COVID-19 pandemic brought poorly-fitting PPE for women into the limelight. Recent studies on healthcare workers highlight significantly more female workers experiencing the effects of poorly fitting PPE.
Not only is poorly fitting PPE uncomfortable, but it also affects workers’ ability to perform their job tasks safely and effectively. Employers should take any possible steps to help mitigate these risks for a safer workplace. Action points can include working closely with suppliers to increase sizing options, selecting the right PPE for each person, and ensuring it fits correctly.
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