Home Business Insights & Advice Enhancing workplace health and safety: Addressing the gender gap with PPE at work

Enhancing workplace health and safety: Addressing the gender gap with PPE at work

by Sarah Dunsby
21st Jun 24 3:07 pm

The importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) in maintaining workplace health and safety cannot be overstated. However, a critical issue currently unaddressed is the inadequacy of PPE designed for women. In many workplaces, women wear PPE at work that is tailored for men, leading to numerous safety and health concerns.

Understanding the role and importance of PPE at work

PPE is essential in safeguarding workers from potential hazards in the workplace. Its primary function is to minimise exposure to risks that can cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. PPE includes equipment and gear such as helmets, gloves, eye protection, high-visibility clothing, safety footwear, and hearing protection.

For instance, helmets and gloves protect against head and hand injuries, while respirators and chemical-resistant clothing safeguard against harmful fumes and liquids. Hearing protection, such as earplugs and earmuffs, helps prevent hearing loss in noisy environments, and safety glasses and face shields prevent from flying debris and chemical splashes causing eye injuries.

However, while PPE at work is designed to ensure safety, the one-size-fits-all approach predominantly favours men, leaving female workers at a disadvantage. Women’s smaller stature and needs are often overlooked in PPE design. This leads to discomfort and increased risk of injury which undermines the very purpose of protective gear in the workplace.

According to a recent report by RS Health & Safety, the majority surveyed strongly agree that PPE at work needs to be more inclusive for women workers. 82% of health and safety officials agree that current PPE for women is unsuitable, highlighting the urgent need for properly fitting protective equipment for every worker.

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The risks of ill-fitting PPE for workplace health and safety

Ill-fitting PPE poses significant risks to workplace health and safety, particularly for women. When equipment does not fit properly, it can slip, restrict movement, or fail to provide adequate protection. During a recent Commons debate, Labour MP Emma Hardy said there is a growing call for “PPE to be designed with the female anatomy in mind”, highlighting the urgent need to address this critical issue to ensure all workers are adequately protected.

Furthermore, Hardy addressed worrying statistics where “42% of women reported experiences related to ill-fitting PPE that impacted their careers and caused long-term health problems”. These issues highlight the critical need for PPE to be designed with the female anatomy in mind to ensure all workers are adequately protected and safe in their work environments.

Reduced effectiveness: PPE that is too large or too small fails to provide adequate protection. For example, loose gloves can reduce grip and dexterity, increasing the likelihood of accidents involving tools or machinery. Similarly, oversized helmets may not stay in place, compromising head protection during critical moments.

Discomfort & fatigue: Ill-fitting PPE at work can also cause physical discomfort, leading to fatigue and reduced concentration. This affects the worker’s performance and increases the risk of accidents due to decreased alertness.

Restricted mobility: PPE not designed for women can restrict movement, making it difficult to perform tasks efficiently and safely. For instance, overly large safety harnesses or oversized work boots can impede a worker’s ability to move freely, which is crucial in industries like construction where agility is essential.

Psychological impact: Wearing uncomfortable PPE at work can lead to frustration and decreased morale. This can impact overall job performance and increase turnover rates, as workers feel undervalued and unsupported.

Industries affected

Several industries are particularly impacted by the issue of ill-fitting PPE for women. PPE is a key aspect of construction work, where safety standards in the construction industry demand high-quality protective gear. Safety harnesses, boots, and helmets, not designed to fit their bodies, are essential for preventing falls, head injuries, and other common hazards on construction sites. Ensuring that PPE fits properly is vital for maintaining safety standards and protecting workers from potential injuries.

In the manufacturing industry, PPE is fundamental for health and safety in any manufacturing, fabrication or workshop setting. Safe operation of commercial bandsaws and other types of cutting machines is particularly important; cutting materials, such as wood and metal, is a high-risk and dangerous job requiring the proper training, attention, and protective equipment. Properly fitting PPE is essential to protect against numerous hazards, ensuring that all workers can perform their tasks safely and effectively.

The lack of PPE designed specifically for women not only compromises employee safety but also highlights a broader issue of gender inequality in the workplace. Addressing this issue requires a concerted effort from employers, manufacturers, and policymakers to ensure that all workers, regardless of gender, can access appropriate and effective protective equipment.

Creating a safer workplace with well-fitted PPE for all

The issue of ill-fitting PPE for women is not merely a matter of discomfort but a significant safety concern that demands immediate attention. Ensuring that PPE is designed to accommodate the diverse needs of all workers is essential for fostering a safe, inclusive, and efficient workplace.

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