The “Personal” in PPE. Why Fit, Comfort and Style Matter
By Alexandra Serban
March 09, 2020
Women are not only slowly breaking down occupation divide in fields like tech and aerospace, but also in industry and trade. They represent approximately 9% of the construction workforce, according to the National Association of Women in Construction. As workplace diversity increases, employers need to consider different garment shapes, sizes and anatomy-specific needs.
This article reminds why women, but more importantly, all workers, need adequate PPE that fits.
Loose PPE, more than a nuisance
Historically, women had to use the same equipment as men. Gloves were often too long, too wide, too large, or too big and safety glasses were too loose. Women also had difficulties finding a dust mask to seal tightly. And everyone knows that a perfectly sealed respirator is crucial in protecting workers from microscopic dust particles.
Apart from being inconvenient, large, heavy, ill-fitted gear puts female workers at risk. Excess material can lead to tripping, entanglement, dexterity and contamination risks.
To avoid these hazards, women who have no option but to wear men’s PPE usually roll, tape or tie up long pants or sleeves. However, alteration isn’t the answer, as it affects the inherent safety properties of the gear. If parts or accessories are removed, altered or worn incorrectly, the safety equipment will fail.
Wearing the wrong size has long-term effects on workers’ health. Tight safety footwear can lead to chronic musculoskeletal disorders. Read more about the impact of poor safety footwear, here.
Ultimately, discomfort makes workers leave their protective gear behind.
“Ignoring workers who might need a larger or smaller glove is almost like giving them a pass to leave their PPE in the locker,” says Sujo John, Global Products Manager at Honeywell. “This is one of the most common reasons for noncompliance and thus, accidents”.
Changing workforce, changing standards
There is growing awareness on the need of more size options from manufacturers. A footnote in Table 1 of the revised ANSI/ISEA 107-2015 regulates background fabric for the smallest garment offered in each design, to accommodate smaller-sized workers.
Employers are also reminded to provide workers with the correct garment size.
In 2019, the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) teamed up with the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) to educate employers on the importance of providing PPE in a range of sizes to protect all workers.
“Unfortunately, some employers simply order one or two common sizes in bulk—often large or extra-large—without regard for employees’ physical variations,” Lydia Baugh, ISEA director, said in an interview. “But there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all PPE. Not everyone fits into a standard size. Men and women come in all shapes and sizes, and their PPE needs to conform to their body dimensions to be effective.”
The problem with “one size fits all”
Nowadays, most PPE is created based on generalized anthropometric data. Yet unisex or “universal” PPE, designed for both men and women, can have its shortcomings. For instance, some fall arrest harnesses don’t take into consideration women’s chest, thigh, and hip sizes.
PPE items that conform to the body, such as coveralls, gloves and fall harnesses, are the least likely to fit women properly, this study shows.
“The need to create properly fitted PPE is vital for all workers,” says Jana Bacinska, clothing and textile designer for Honeywell Safety and Productivity. “We noticed that uncomfortable and poorly fitted clothes eventually demotivate workers, tire them out faster and decreases productivity.”
Jana works closely with teams responsible for designing firefighter apparel.
Baggy firefighter garments can get caught in debris, slow a firefighter down and impact his/her chances of survival. Ill-fitted gear can also leave skin exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, which find their way into the bloodstream and lungs.
More “personal” protection
The global Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) market size is projected to reach USD 85.72 billion by 2026, according to market research.
Recognizing that ill-fitted garments jeopardize safety; a growing number of manufacturers have started to create PPE suitable for the woman’s anatomy.
25 years ago, Honeywell started customizing its gear to individual firefighters. Noticing a growing number of women firefighters entering the workforce, the company started getting women’s input on how to make gear fit better and be more comfortable. It also started offering more customized tailoring, making the gear more ergonomic. It now customizes gear for 285,000 active firefighters.
Safety shoes are being customized for women’s higher arch and narrower heel, with lasts that fit their foot shape and provide comfort.
The headbands of hearing protection devices are adjustable to fit a bigger range of head sizes. The foam cushion is wider to fit bigger ears, and comes in light materials that eliminate the pressure on the ears.
Adjustable harnesses are now available, with an elasticated chest strap that stretches in the event of a fall. This reduces pressure on the bust area.
PPE style is also important, as employees look to be recognized as individuals.
“A broader range of sizes and shapes means there is less likelihood of hard hats falling off”, Andres Rivera, says Global Product Marketing Manager for General Safety. “Additionally, a diversity of colors, logo and graphic options help showcase a bit of the wearer’s personality.”
Apart from undermining health and safety, lack of adequate PPE may impede women from being be as efficient as men when performing their jobs. This raises the question of equality of employment opportunities for women.
Furthermore, a lot of women are covering the costs of PPE themselves. Despite their concerns around availability and PPE fit, women are reluctant to discuss them with management, a survey shows.
But providing PPE that properly fits each employee is the employer's responsibility. By offering quality PPE that is stylish, safe and comfortable, you create a strong culture of safety, where every employee feels acknowledged and valued.