Ill-fitting protective clothing and equipment is a critical problem in workplace safety. It deters workers from performing job-related tasks safely and efficiently. This problem is especially reliant for women in safety. More often than not, women who work at sites that require them to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) ‘make do’ with clothing and equipment designed for men because they are reluctant to draw attention to their safety needs. The limited availability of PPE designed specifically for the shape of a woman’s body is a growing workplace health and safety issue.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Women’s bodies are different than men’s bodies. This shouldn’t be news to anyone but it seems that major players in the safety world—major manufacturers of uniforms and protective equipment—have not received the memo. “Unisex” resources on the market are plentiful, but unisex isn’t the answer. Unisex work clothing and PPE is not made using patterns that suit a female body.
Areas of protective equipment that need to be specifically designed for female workers include: head, eye/face, body, hand and foot protection. For example, men’s-sized work boots are sized larger and wider that women’s sizes. A woman wearing men’s-sized work boots may be subject to tripping hazards, cuts and abrasions may accrue due to blistering, and her toes may not be covered by the protective metal toe cap.
Ill-fitting gloves pose one of the biggest dangers. Over-sized gloves may cause a female worker to grasp a tool tighter than she should in order to get a good grip. Ill-fitting gloves also cause a great number of errors and difficulty in performing tasks requiring fine, detailed movements. And, as with all loose clothing, poor-fitting gloves may get caught in equipment, with horrible consequences.
Goggles and masks are two other types of PPE that might not fit female workers properly. If goggles don’t fit right, debris and other materials may get past them and cause injury to the eyes. And a mask that doesn’t fit properly may provide little or no protection against airborne hazards.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG?
In an effort to cope with poorly fitted gloves, a female worker stuffed cotton in the fingers of the gloves, put tape at the wrist, and tacked the top with staples to stop sparks from getting down the sleeve. Despite her efforts, the dexterity of her fingers was greatly reduced. While using a grinder, she broke two fingers.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF?
Be vocal about your PPE needs. Patience and acceptance are dysfunctional virtues in the face of obvious danger. You need to be assertive.
Be supportive of your co-workers who are assertive about their PPE needs.
Be proactive. Know your size requirements in all PPE you need to wear. Inform your employer of your size.
Voice your concerns about your PPE to your employer or supervisor, joint health and safety committee, or health and safety representative.
Report all hazards including poor-fitting PPE or PPE that is damaged or worn.
Use your right to refuse work if the work is dangerous given the dysfunctional PPE provided.
Many manufacturers are reluctant to invest in the research and development to produce correctly sized and proportioned products for women. Ill-fitting protective equipment jeopardizes the health and safety of female workers and their co-workers. Ill-fitting PPE does not protect at all. Using it is risky.Work with your co-workers and with your company to engage these issues. Every incident that occurs due to ill-fitting PPE should be taken seriously as a close call or near-miss.