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Q&A: How Safety Professionals Can Help Improve the Fit of Women's PPE

Feb 27, 2024

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Closeup of a female industrial worker wearing PPEAlthough it’s at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls, personal protective equipment (PPE) plays an important role in worker safety. But finding PPE that fits is an ongoing challenge for women in many industries.

The ASSP Z590.6 technical report offers guidance on how to design, manufacturer, procure and fit PPE that provides women an appropriate level of protection. Kathi Dobson, CSP, CHST, CIH, SMS, STSC, and Abby Ferri, CSP, ARM, of the Z590.6 subcommittee joined  “The Case for Safety Podcast” and spoke with host Scott Fowler about what you need to know.  

Fowler: What is the current state of PPE for women and the availability of PPE that fits properly?

Dobson: It’s getting better. There are more manufacturers identifying the need and actually investing in putting PPE on the shelves for women. The issue is that there's not enough. I think there's also some overcharging of PPE and pricing issues. But the one thing that is really positive is that manufacturers are starting to take input from the people who use the PPE and develop PPE based on that input.

Fowler: What factors should designers, manufacturers, purachasers and employers consider with women’s PPE?

Ferri: You have to put thought and intention into the process and not just order a variety of sizes and assume something will fit. There’s data that supports the sizing of PPE. Each worker has different needs and those needs need to be considered during the design and purchasing processes.

The report highlights anthropometric data from head to toe on the ways that women often differ from men at scale. Women are not just smaller men. There are actual proportions that scale up and down with the sizes of many women versus men. These are typically true no matter the body size of the woman — her shoulders will probably be narrower than a man’s shoulders.

There's interesting data inside the appendix of the report that I hope other people geek out about as much as we did. I never really thought that the reason that my safety glasses sometimes pop up when I smile is because there's actual data that supports the sizing measurements on how my glasses fit.  

Fowler: What are some of the psychological and sociological impacts of ill-fitting PPE?

Ferri: The parts of the report about psychological safety and how we could quantify that and relate it back to PPE fit was a bit of a dance. But also, the data was right there in front of us that’s been there dating back to 1999.

OSHA's Women in the Construction Workplace Report talks about women having difficulty being taken seriously on their work site, advanced through their apprenticeship and given the proper workloads that they could actually handle. Part of that was ill-fitting PPE. They looked like they didn't belong.

That impact can spread to other parts of the job, to the point that some women were exiting the trades or exiting manufacturing environments that are more male populated because the gear wasn't provided for them. So the message is that this isn't for you, and women hear that message.

That brings us to modern day, where a lot of the PPE and work apparel for women is sold directly from the business to the consumer with women buying their own PPE out of pocket. When we talk about the “pink tax,” it's not just that the gear is more expensive to the employer, but the gear is more expensive to women who choose to stay in these careers because they're buying it out of pocket. Women should not have to spend money out of their own pocket for gear that the employer should be providing them.

Fowler: What physical hazards can occur from ill-fitting PPE?

Dobson: It’s important that you're wearing something that doesn't look like you should be wearing a red clown nose. For example, a woman who has to wear extra large PPE where she has to roll up the pant legs and roll up the cuffs and tape them to make the gear that she needs to do her job safely fit her. 

There's a lot of loose fabric that's hanging around different parts of her body, which also makes it more of a challenge to be taken seriously and respected on the job. The OSHA report discussed issues such as  women who had to stuff pairs of socks in the toes of their work boots so that the boots acutally fit them.

There are also cases where women were wearing gloves so big and bulky that they could become caught in equipment with rotating parts. You shouldn't wear gloves with rotating equipment, but some companies don't understand that. They just tell workers that they have to wear the gloves. So, if you want to keep your job, you're wearing the gloves, even though you know there's an additional hazard.

Fowler: Anything else you’d like to add?  

Ferri: I hope PPE manufacturers look at the Z590.6 technical report and do an audit of their offerings for women. Those in purchasing should push on manufacturers, distributors and suppliers to provide the proper-fitting PPE their wokers need to do their jobs safely. Purchasers should feel empowered to ask for that equipment because the equipment exists and it shouldn't be that hard to find.

PPE is lower on the hierarchy of controls, but it is very important and critical in a lot of these high-hazard industries that you just have to have a certain level of PPE to do your job. We need to make sure people are — at minimum  —  wearing gear that's going to protect them.

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