PPE still not right for women

Sue Ferns · 28 April 2020

With the lack of PPE for vital staff on the COVID front line in the news, our latest research shows that women are still consistently being overlooked on this issue.

Woman wearing ill fitting PPE

Personal protective equipment will never be the right fit if manufacturers or employers make decisions without taking the diversity of the workforce into account, and ill-considered remarks by government ministers seeking to explain current unavailability of much-needed PPE do not help.

The images of healthcare workers with scars and blisters because of badly fitting masks has brought home the reality that ‘one size fits all’ is not the right approach to personal protective equipment.

While the NHS workforce is largely female, there is a shortage of PPE appropriately fitted for women across all industries.

Health and Safety Laboratory

Prospect members at the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Health and Safety Laboratory road test PPE for use by diverse workers in diverse industrial situations.

On a 2019 visit to the lab, HSE scientists showed us their procedures for testing the kit used in healthcare settings during communicable disease outbreaks, such as SARS and Ebola.

They emphasised that PPE must keep the user safe both while they wear it, and during contamination and removal.

Using fluorescent ‘tracers’, they demonstrate how aerosol particulates can gather in bunched-up fabric – rolled sleeves and belted waists on overalls – only to become airborne again when the garment is removed.

Prospect’s latest survey

The results of Prospect’s latest PPE survey show that overalls, jackets and trousers are where the gender dimension peaks.

A shocking 48.5% of our female respondents told us that their PPE trousers fit poorly, compared to 16.6% of male respondents.

44.7% of female respondents and just 15.3% of male respondents said that their overalls fit poorly.

First-hand experiences

This comes as no surprise to Prospect representatives such as Jackie Western, a health and safety inspector in the construction industry:

“I’ve experienced it first-hand during my career: having to wear a hi-viz tabard that came down to my knees, and not even being able to reach the pockets. It’s hard to maintain a professional bearing when you look like you’ve raided the dressing-up box!

Face masks and safety glasses

Jackie told us that ‘face fit testing’ for respiratory protective equipment, such as the masks required for healthcare workers, is even more complicated. HSE guidance on fit testing says that these masks rely on having a good seal with the user’s face.

“Even with the best of intentions, we see employers pick up a box of ten of the same shape of mask for their ten employees when, in reality, they could need a different type for every worker.

“Having a narrow face, and wearing glasses, I had to fit test more than twenty masks before I found the one that was right for me.”

Face masks and safety glasses are a raw nerve for many of the women who responded to our PPE survey:

  • 5% of women reported ill-fitting eye protection, compared with 13.5% of men
  • 7% of women and 7% of men had problems with poorly-fitting respiratory equipment, and
  • 8% of women and 7.6% of men had problems with ear protection.

As Ally Clark, a Prospect rep at the Health and Safety Laboratory pointed out, this is not just a female issue.

Women typically have smaller, narrower faces, but men often have problems with face fit testing if they have facial hair, and it’s a challenge for anyone who wears glasses.

HSE scientists test masks on a range of model heads, representing different ages and genders, with beards, wigs and glasses, supporting workplaces to protect all their workers.

The short story is, as always, that one size does not fit all.

Equalities minister gets it wrong

The minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, defended the government’s PPE procurement efforts during the coronavirus pandemic by saying “…it is the same protection that is required regardless of what gender you are.”

Prospect’s long experience of campaigning on this tells us that she is wrong. Truss later claimed that she had meant that the same level of protection was required. If so, she simply ignored the question: where is the women’s PPE?

It is obvious to every woman who has ever tried to operate precision equipment in oversized gloves, or worked on an archaeological dig in waterproofs that have to be rolled up at the sleeves and ankles and belted in at the waist.

If it is not obvious to Liz Truss, then that shows her lack of first-hand experience of using PPE, but also a failure to learn from other working women’s experiences.

Diversity in decision-making

What is more shocking – although not entirely surprising – is that the NHS, where nearly four out of five staff are female, does not mainstream women’s needs when it procures PPE.

Health and safety-critical decisions must reflect the experience of the full, diverse workforce if we are to protect women and minorities in all workplaces. Union health and safety reps have a key role to play.

We hold employers to account when needed, but we would much rather they worked proactively with us to avoid such failures in the first place.

Sue Ferns is the senior deputy general secretary of Prospect Union.