Is Lack of Proper Women’s PPE Causing Safety Issues?

A lack of suitable women’s coveralls in the industry is hardly a new problem: during the World Wars, tens of thousands of women joined the manufacturing and healthcare workforce, and nations were hard-pressed to outfit them all in boilersuits and coveralls that fit them properly. 

Unfortunately, despite the problem being old, it’s still not fully resolved. Even in 2024, most safety gear in manufacturing and industrial processes as well as healthcare settings is designed for men. 

PPE, or personal protective equipment such as gloves, protective suits, and goggles, helps protect healthcare workers from airborne infection, and the need for PPE has been stratospheric since the beginning of the COVID-19 era. With more women than men working in healthcare settings, the mismatch is particularly frustrating. 

Globally, women make up approximately 70 percent of the global healthcare workforce.

 “This is a universal issue as most PPE is designed for U.S. and European males and are too big for many females and Asian health care workers,” Dr. Michelle Acorn, chief nurse at the International Council of Nurses, told Rebecca L. Root, writing for the publication Devex.

Devex noted that research conducted in 2020 in the UK found that respiratory equipment “poorly fit” 16.7 percent of women health workers compared to 7.6 percent of men. PPE that does not fit well leaves workers exposed to harmful substances or chemicals as well as infections.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the need for more PPE in women’s sizes. As women make up 70 percent of the healthcare workforce, smaller sizes of PPE become scarce, and healthcare facilities struggle to accommodate the demand. Female workers are left to invent their solutions, such as tying knots in over-large masks to achieve a better fit. 

The problem is exacerbated in that women hold only 25 percent of leadership positions in healthcare, so their needs often go unaddressed. Some nations are trying to improve the representation of women on healthcare boards, where purchasing decisions are often made. 

“UN Women and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe have encouraged all standards bodies to sign a Gender Responsive Standards and Standards Development Declaration to ensure any standards developed are gender-responsive and that a gender action plan for their organization is implemented,” wrote Root for Devex.

In a recent article for the publication Industry Week, Anna Smith addresses how companies are responding to ill-fitting women’s safety gear. 

“Not only does ill-fitting PPE put women employees at risk, but for an industry struggling to find workers, it sends a less-than-welcoming message to a category of workers that often has been overlooked,” wrote Smith. “Fortunately, times are changing, and manufacturers are stepping in to fill the gap.

Companies that purchase PPE for workers should be encouraged to make more equitable decisions when it comes to purchasing equipment that will accommodate female workers, and this includes consulting a professional workplace safety organization for guidance.

In Southern California, Unishield has been providing businesses with the highest quality workplace safety training and compliance solutions for employers. In addition, Unishield offers first aid kits and medical supplies, first aid restocking services, industrial safety equipment, and portable emergency medical equipment such as the lifesaving AED (automatic external defibrillator). Call 800-480-5855 or visit our website for more information.

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