Personal Protective Equipment: the right fit for women?
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is there to protect workers from potential hazards to their health and safety; it must be used properly. However, the experiences of hundreds of women tells us that they have not been provided with appropriate PPE to carry out their jobs. This is exposing women to several health and safety risks.
The TUC recently published a report on personal protective equipment (or PPE) and women. The report especially cast a spotlight on inequalities in regards to PPE, and the role of unions in narrowing the inequalities gap for women. This is because for too long we have rode on the assumption that it is mainly men who are at risk of health and safety risks, or in need of protection, given some of the usual sectors they work in: mining and construction etc. And due to this women have suffered from inappropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) at work.
More women are entering into traditionally male jobs, in areas like construction, engineering and the emergency service – these industries are particularly at risk from inappropriately designed equipment, tools and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
The TUC report indicates that less than 30% of women were provided with clothing or equipment designed for women.
There are a number of consequences with the wrong PPE. Ill-fitting, uncomfortable and inappropriate PPE not only prevents women from doing their job, but also carries significant health and safety issues. An example is safety boots, as a typical woman’s foot is both shorter and narrower than a typical man’s foot, so a smaller boot may be the right length but not the right width. If she is not wearing the right equipment this will cause her potential injuries and impact her ability to do her job well.
In a TUC survey, 57% of women stated that their PPE sometimes or significantly hampered their work. Women also found it very difficult to get suitable PPE during pregnancy.
And its not just PPE, work equipment (such as desks, chairs, machinery and personal protective equipment) is mainly designed for the average-size male worker and takes little account of the ergonomic needs of women. This opens up women to risks of work injuries, manifested through poor working posture, and can lead to musculoskeletal disorders.
Equality Law does maintain that employers should treat women no less equitably than men. But we know that sometimes that’s not the case… Women from certain industries affected by PPE told us about their experiences:
NHS Estates Department:
“We don’t need to be Barbified, just have the same gear as the men, but with an adjustment to allow a proper fit (e.g. boiler suits with a little more room for hips) for women.”
“The shape of clothes are all designed with the man in mind. I’m 5ft2 and small framed (size 6). Any uniform I get just hangs on me. As for boots. I’m a size 3. Again they seem to come up huge.”
Police support staff
“I am presently trying to address gender sensitive PPE boots for female CSI’s. The PPE boots supplied are same as those for males, and the females find them uncomfortable, too heavy, and causing pressure on the Achilles tendons…”
“We are all issued with full PPE including a set of overalls. The idea being that because we all have… to respond to a search and rescue incident and we must put these overalls on top of whatever clothing we may be wearing at the time. The overalls are a one piece design with a zip which fastens at the front. A complaint which many of my female colleagues have regularly made about the overalls is that they make it very inconvenient for female coastguards to use the toilet while wearing them. There is a double zip at the front which is great for males, but for female coastguards it is very impractical to go to the bathroom. It isn’t just a matter of having to take off the overalls to use the bathroom…”
Policy body armour
“For a long time our uniform has never fitted correctly as we appear to have hips and breasts. Who would’ve thought? My vest is doubled as a hand warmer during the cold months as the breast area padding is so roomy. The actual vest sits on my kit belt which in turn bruises my hips, especially when standing for long periods of time on an operation. I cannot be alone in this.”
The law puts in place certain safeguards to ensure that employers provide PPE to workers free of charge. This comes under the legal requirements in the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002 and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.
There are three key things an employer can do:
- Employers should avoid suppliers who do not provide a range of sizes for both men and women and where they have not properly assessed their equipment for both men and women.
- Where the need for separate PPE for men and women is identified, the employer should make sure that they provide the same range of sizes for women as for men.
- Employers should provide feedback mechanisms for the suitability of PPE and work with health and safety representatives to ensure a correct range of PPE is provided.
Worker safety involves a joint-effort. Union reps can be trained on the rights and legal issues, the employer must implement the law and the government must protect the rights of workers and not attack the health and safety protection afforded to workers.
Here are some ideas on what Union Reps can do:
- Raise the issue of gender and PPE with their employer through the joint safety committee and ask for a report on whether appropriate PPE is provided and worn.
- Survey women members to see if they have any issues with the PPE that is provided.
- Encourage members to report any issues around PPE to their manager and to the union.
- Don’t just accept it if your employer says there is no suitable PPE available to women. Work with other reps in other workplaces to share experiences of problems and solutions.