Women’s Personal Protective Equipment: One size does not fit all
Today is National Women in Engineering Day, but for many women it will be another day of coping with ill-fitting and uncomfortable PPE.
A new online survey run by Prospect tapped into a deep vein of frustration. Only 29% of the more than 3,000 respondents reported that the PPE they wear is designed for women (It’s less than 10% of those working in the energy sector and just 17% in construction).
Almost nine in ten (89%) are currently required to wear PPE at work. Others have done so in the past or wear it on an occasional basis, such as for site visits.
Trousers and overalls were ranked among the worst-fitting items, although there were numerous complaints from women in the emergency services about ill-fitting stab vests. Almost six in ten (57%) respondents said their PPE sometimes or significantly hampers their work.
More than a quarter (28%) had been on the wrong end of derogatory and offensive comments while wearing their PPE, including comparisons with MC Hammer, a Teletubby, a sack of potatoes, Sponge Bob Square Pants, an Umpa Lumpa, Robocop and Oliver Twist!
This behaviour has an adverse impact on women and the organisations they work for. For example, women said work had been delayed because of having to send special requests for PPE that fits and being put off going on site visits.
One woman explained that she ended up taking time off sick when pregnant rather than face the humiliation of PPE that had become even more ill-fitting.
A few women commented that their PPE is so uncomfortable that they simply do not wear it. Others said that they felt utterly unprofessional and a few said that badly fitting PPE had caused permanent damage to their bodies.
Although 99% of respondents said their employer pays for the PPE, responsibility for looking after it varies by sector.
Employers in nuclear and R&D are most likely to take responsibility for cleaning their workers’ PPE. Emergency services employers were least likely to do so.
Women working in transport and construction are most likely to be responsible for storing, maintaining and repairing their own PPE. Union members are more likely to get their PPE cleaned by their employer, but less likely to benefit from employer maintenance and repair.
Given the opportunity to suggest improvements to their PPE, 2,293 respondents provided comments – of which just 28 were positive. They wanted to see:
- an equivalent range of options in women’s sizes as in men’s as standard
- an appropriate and accurate measuring system and/or place where PPE can be tried on
- more employers making an effort to match better practice in other companies
If we’re serious about getting more women into engineering and science careers, we need to do a lot more to make sure they’re given the kit they need to do the job safely and to the best of their abilities.