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Ill-fitting PPE adds to safety hazards faced by working women

Personal protective equipment is failing to protect half of the Canadian workforce as most of it is designed to fit the bodies of men with little regard to women.
 
A recently published report by the CSA Group entitled Canadian Women's Experiences with Personal Protective Equipment in the Workplace highlights the difficulties women workers face accessing comfortable and properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) and the failure of regulatory frameworks to meet their unique PPE-related safety and health needs.  
 
“Many women are struggling to find gear that fits, using things like duct tape to get through the day,” explains Jennifer Teague, Vice-President, Standards, Research, and Planning, CSA Group. “They’re modifying harnesses, designed for their male counterparts, to avoid creating pressure points on their torso.”
 
According to the CSA Group, this research project is a response to a growing body of evidence of problems health care workers experienced with ill-fitting PPE during the COVID-19 crisis, along with more general lack of protection from hazards in many sectors because respirators, head protection, hearing protection, fall-arrest gear, outerwear, and most other PPE is designed for men.
 
“Women are not just scaled down versions of men,” says Teague. “PPE needs to be designed with everyone in mind.”
 
Research evidence and the lived experience of the 2,700 women workers surveyed for this report suggest this is not happening.
 
For this report the CSA Group reviewed research on sex and gender-related anthropometrics, performed an environmental scan of occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation across Canadian jurisdictions, interviewed several people with experience in regulating, procuring, or designing PPE and surveyed 2,700 Canadian working women who use PPE at work.
 
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Inadequacy of PPE

Firstly, just six per cent of those surveyed said the PPE they usually use is designed for women. Its not surprising then more than 80 per cent report experiencing one or more problems with their PPE. For instance, more than half reported PPE did not fit properly. This was most often reported by those wearing fall-arrest gear—a major concern considering the significant risk to health posed by falls from heights.
 
Additional inequities reported include having to source and pay out of pocket for PPE to meet comfort and safety needs, while men did not. Other key PPE issues raised by women surveyed include:

✅ failure to meet needs at all (31 per cent)
✅ uncomfortable to wear (43 per cent)
✅ negatively impacts ability to do job (25 per cent)
✅ use of wrong size at least some of the time (58 per cent), and
✅ suffered injury/illness or near miss when PPE failed to provide protection (25 per cent).

More than half report altering PPE for safety, comfort and fit. This includes taping fall arrest harnesses or choking lanyards to make shorter. Examples of other PPE workarounds reported include sewing, use of rubber bands, safety pins or duct tape to secure work gloves and to prevent lengthy pants and coveralls from becoming tripping hazards.
 
“What’s important to know is that PPE is developed to a standard and then that PPE is certified to that standard, so if they are using a workaround or they are modifying it in any way, it no longer meets the certification of that product,” explains Teague. “Employers need to know this.”
 
In fact, employers can face legal jeopardy here in Ontario and many other jurisdictions as they must take every precaution reasonable to protect workers which includes providing required equipment, materials and protective devices and ensuring these are appropriately used and maintained. This must include provision of adequate training and instruction on care and use.
 
As if safety and comfort issues were not enough for women to deal with, one in five also report experiencing negative or rude comments because of ill-fitting PPE. Here in Ontario, employers have a duty to address this harassment.

Inequity of OHS regulatory framework

Beyond the regulatory requirements mentioned above, this report however, highlights many significant inequities and inconsistencies in OHS regulatory framework.
 
Key informants affiliated with OHS regulators and interviewed for this report admitted there is no “gender lens” incorporated into the development or enforcement of OHS legislation, prevention policies, and programs. This includes complete lack of attention to gender-specific issues when training the inspectorate responsible for enforcement. 
 
Also highlighted are some critical inconsistencies in Canada’s workplace health and safety regulatory systems designed to provide even minimum protection offered by PPE. For instance, just half of the 14 Canadian jurisdictions include regulatory language requiring employers ensure PPE is suitable to protect against workplace hazards and fits properly. Ontario regs provide no such protection.
 
It is also important to note while workers may be required to use PPE, it’s understood under a hierarchy of controls, PPE is often not the optimal solution or at very least, should not be the only solution in place. Most OHS laws acknowledge PPE should be used only in certain circumstances and for limited periods of time. (The big exclusion to this rule however being PPE to protect against infectious disease, as masks and respirators for instance, also help control the hazard at the source.)
 
Additional inequities relate to a lack of a gender lens in the development of safety standards often referenced in OHS legislation for specific types of PPE, including standards published by the CSA Group.

Safer, healthier, equitable way forward

Women, their representatives, health and safety advocates, and researchers have been raising gender-specific comfort, fit and safety issues for decades. They have also been proposing solutions, cited in this report, most of which have yet to be adequately acted upon, including:
  • gathering anthropometric data on women,
  • manufacturers using this information along with input from women who use PPE to ensure it is designed to meet their needs,
  • improved standards development and certification procedures incorporating this information, and    
  • raising worker and employer awareness about PPE designed for women.

This report concludes with a strong directive that “Sex and gender needs to be, without delay, mainstreamed into all aspects of OHS legislation, policy, standards development, and practice.”

WHSC training can help

Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) assists workplaces through PPE training (see under onsite courses) and information services aimed at raising awareness about the limitations of PPE and targeting safety for all. Further, as Ontario’s official occupational health and safety training centre, WHSC is approved to provide mandatory Certification Training for joint health and safety committee (JHSC) members who possess the legal authority to identify hazards and the gender-related inadequacies of PPE and recommend solutions. Similar training is available for worker health and safety representatives in smaller workplaces who possess these same rights. 
 
WHSC Supervisor Training helps employers and supervisors meet and exceed awareness and competency requirements so critical to preparing them to meet their significant obligation to protect workers. We also offer training for workers themselves in the form of training such as Worker Health and Safety Awareness and Globally-Harmonized WHMIS.


  
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Want to read more?
CSA Group report Canadian Women's Experiences with Personal Protective Equipment in the Workplace
When one size does not protect: understanding why gender matters for standardization