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Women make up nearly 30% of the manufacturing sector and 78% of all healthcare jobs. The number of women working in construction has steadily increased between 2012 and 2020. And yet, a 2019 report from the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) found acquiring properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) is still a challenge for this growing segment of over eight million female workers.
Properly fitting PPE is essential in every industry to help ensure workers can complete their tasks safely. And when it comes to PPE, a one-size-fits-all approach does not suffice.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) PPE General Requirements Standard (29 CFR 1910.132), all PPE must be designed and constructed for the work to be performed, and employers are required to select PPE that properly fits each affected employee. OSHA guidance specifically states that PPE used by women should be based upon female anthropometric data. (See more below on anthropometry.) OSHA is also in the process of developing a proposed rule that may create more robust standards for employers to ensure all workers receive adequately fitted PPE.
In September 2023, ASSP issued a Technical Report: Guidance of Personal Protective Equipment for Women (registered with ANSI: ASSP TR-Z590.6-2023) to provide guidance for the selection, fit, and use of PPE for women. This ANSI-registered report aims to help employers develop tailored PPE programs and/or adjust their existing PPE programs to account for women workers. The guidance addresses fit issues, selection, assessment, and use of such PPE and outlines anthropometric considerations and sizing for:
Focusing on Anthropometry
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the use of anthropometric data is important to ensure adequate PPE fit. Anthropometry is the science that defines a person’s size, body shape, and functional capabilities. There are intrinsic differences in the shape and size of women’s bodies vs. men’s bodies that require PPE to be tailored differently to fit appropriately—not just be sized down. For example, women tend to have smaller wrists, hands, and feet; shorter arms and legs; and wider hips than men.
PPE has historically been designed and manufactured for men based on outdated anthropometric data collected from the military in the 1950s and 1970s, resulting in poor-fitting PPE for women and other individuals who do not fall into the “average” range. A survey conducted by CSA Group in Canada found that of almost 3,000 women who regularly use PPE on the job, over 80% experience some PPE-related challenges (e.g., improper fit, inadequate selection, or discomfort).
Cause for Concern
If PPE is not correctly fitted to the body, it can cause discomfort and increase the risk of workplace accidents and injuries. According to 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, women experience more fatal injury events than men in the category of exposure to harmful substances or environments. This may be attributed to PPE not being adequate to appropriately reduce exposure to harmful substances. The CSA Group survey further found that injuries and incidents related to PPE were reported among 40% of the women.
Using standard PPE in a smaller size that does not consider anthropometry is not a solution. Ill-fitting PPE may prevent the wearer from moving comfortably, hamper productivity, and cause other significant safety hazards. For example:
- Gloves and clothing: If clothing and gloves are too loose, they are more likely to get caught in machinery and equipment, potentially causing amputations or even fatalities. Improperly fitting gloves can also cause the wearer to drop or mishandle items.
- Footwear: Ill-fitting footwear can cause trouble walking/tripping, create blisters, or provide inadequate toe protection. It may even eventually lead to foot deformities over time.
- Eye protection: Bulky or ill-fitting eye protection may leave gaps in protection and could allow debris to enter the eyes.
- Fall protection: Poor fitting PPE used when working from height (e.g., personal fall arrest systems) may not distribute weight evenly and could render such systems ineffective. Improperly sized safety vests and fall harnesses can also increase the severity of fall injuries.
- Respiratory protection: If respirators don’t fit correctly, they could prevent access to clean air and expose workers to respiratory irritants. Bloodborne pathogen exposures could also occur.
When PPE does not fit right, employees may feel inclined to alter their PPE. This can compromise the integrity of the PPE, prevent it from performing as intended, directly impact the employee’s ability to work, and jeopardize the level of protection. Even worse, women just may not opt to wear the ill-fitting PPE, significantly increasing overall accident exposure.
It is crucial that employers provide adequate PPE to all workers to prevent potential safety risks, especially those stemming from wearing ill-fitting PPE. Employers cannot afford to wait for employees to complain about ill-fitting PPE or, worse yet, for an accident to occur. The focus should be on adopting the following best practices to ensure all employees are well protected and productive:
- Review policies and procedures. Employers should regularly assess PPE policies and procedures and revise them, as needed, to comply with current and pending OSHA requirements and industry guidelines.
- Conduct fit testing. Comfort is a major factor with PPE. To encourage usage, PPE must fit comfortably. Employers can ensure this by conducting regular fit testing for employees to ensure the PPE fits and functions as intended.
- Look for better alternatives. Smaller sizes alone do not cut it for PPE. Employers should continually look for alternatives for better PPE that will meet the anthropometric needs of all workers, particularly as new options continually come on the market that are designed specifically for women.
- Promote inclusivity. Recognize that workers may require specific PPE needs based on sex, height, weight, physical abilities, and cultural differences. Addressing the safety needs of all workers goes a long way in creating a more inclusive work environment the values the safety of all employees. The ASSP Guidance provides an excellent resource to help companies consider the anthropometric needs of women when assessing fit. Other PPE options to consider may include maternity PPE, PPE for workers with limb differences, and PPE for workers with cultural or religious needs.
- Train, train, train. Employees need to understand how PPE should fit. They also need to be empowered to speak up if PPE does not fit appropriately to ensure their safety.