Industry fights for equality with PPE for women

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is primarily designed based on anthropometric data (the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body) that historically has been derived from male body measurements. This poses challenges for women, as there are anatomical and physiological differences between men and women. The lack of proper design for women in PPE can result in ill-fitting equipment, reduced comfort and compromised safety.

Several reasons contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the design and production of PPE.

  1. Historical bias: Traditionally, industries like construction, manufacturing and other sectors where PPE is essential have been male-dominated. 
  2. Limited data for female measurements: Until recent times, there has been insufficient data on female body measurements in many industries.
  3. Cost considerations: Designing PPE that accommodates different body shapes and sizes can be more expensive due to the need for additional sizes and variations.
  4. Safety standards based on male bodies: Safety standards and regulations have historically been based on male measurements, further perpetuating the cycle of PPE that may not adequately fit women.

While progress is being made, there’s still much work to be done to ensure that PPE adequately accommodates the diverse needs of both men and women across various industries. Collaboration between industries, researchers, manufacturers and regulatory bodies is crucial to achieving gender-inclusive PPE design.

Employers play a significant role in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their employees, including providing appropriate PPE.

A petition fighting to amend the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 to require employers to take into account the specific needs of female employees in respect of PPE, and ensure that appropriate PPE is provided.

According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), women’s specific workwear and PPE has been available on the market for a number of years, and is constantly evolving, yet 59.6% of employers do not provide women’s PPE, as of August 2023 (NAWIC, 2023).

High visibility clothing for women is available, including vests, coats, polo shirts, trousers and overalls, all designed specifically for the female form. It’s important to note that high visibility clothing specific for pregnancy and modesty is also available, including polo shirts and trousers for pregnancy, and long-sleeved shirts for modesty.

Safety footwear is another item which is available, unfortunately, limits on the sizing of safety footwear due to the way in which the regulations for PPE testing is set up.

Areas where the range of women’s specific PPE is sparce include hard hats, harnesses, eye protection and ear protection.

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) has launched a major new initiative to address widespread inequalities in PPE provision across the construction industry.

The #PPEthatfits campaign will drive awareness around the lack of inclusive PPE in the market and consider how this is impacting health and safety on site, while also hampering the industry’s ability to attract and retain a more diverse workforce. The campaign also features a directory of suppliers who provide #PPEthatfits and this will be updated regularly.

The campaign defines #PPEthatfits as:

“PPE that fits the wearer properly, regardless of their gender, culture, religion, size or shape, is safe, and compliant with health and safety regulations.”

The three key objectives of the campaign are:

  1. Construction organisations to ask suppliers to provide #PPEthatfits for their workforce.
  2. PPE manufacturers to make #PPEthatfits.
  3. Manufacturing standards for PPE to address gender, religious, cultural considerations.