The PPE Gender Gap: Are We Considering Women in Workplace Health and Safety?Mar 03, 2023
Sex and gender are rarely considered in health and safety standards and policies, and women’s health may be at greater risk because of it. A new report from the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) shows that a lack of women-specific personal protective equipment (PPE) continues to negatively impact women in the workplace. Due to lack of anthropometric data about the female population in these industries and gaps in current PPE regulations, women are facing challenges with the fit, comfort, and availability of PPE, which has been designed for male proportions.
If we continue to design workplaces to fit only men, we neglect the unique needs of women employees. This can lead to increased feelings of exclusion in certain workplaces, increased disparity between male and female workers, and even worse, injuries that result from ill-fitting PPE. Employers are obligated to do their part in preventing harm in the workplace – and implementing best practices for PPE in the workplace is a good place to start.
The Impact of Poorly Designed PPE on Women
With PPE being the last line of defense to protect workers, it is imperative that it be worn correctly so that it is effective against workplace hazards. In CSA’s survey of nearly 3,000 women who use PPE in their daily job function, 58% of women reported using PPE that is the wrong size, 38% say they modify their PPE to make it fit better, and 28% don’t wear all the required PPE because of issues with fit1. Some of the PPE issues reported included ill-fitting clothing, gloves, and boots and loose or poorly fitting safety harnesses. These issues lower worker productivity and increase exposure to hazards. Though there is a lack of research on how poorly designed PPE contributes to sex and gender differences in rates of injury in the workplace, women employed in sectors such as construction, transportation, natural resources, utilities, and emergency services are reportedly at higher risk of serious injuries than men1. Women employees in these industries had the highest levels of dissatisfaction and frustration with their PPE in CSA’s survey. The survey also reported that almost 40% of women reported experiencing an injury or incident that they perceived to be related to their PPE1.
Aside from injuries, women in poorly designed PPE also experience negative effects such as decreased productivity as a result of limited functionality, out-of-pocket for costs to source their own PPE, and perceived unprofessionalism from co-workers. Of the women surveyed, 20% reported receiving negative or rude comments because of ill-fitting PPE1. If women feel that they are being mistreated in the workplace or that their safety is being compromised, this can have a harmful effect on the employee-employer relationship.
It is clear that poorly designed PPE for women can have far-reaching impacts, from injuries and lost-time claims to poor psychological safety in the workplace. Though there is much work to be done to improve PPE design and regulations, employers can do their due diligence to keep female employees safe by creating equitable workplace policies.
What Can Employers Do?
- Identify workplace hazards by looking at the workplace, the work, and the worker, and determine the types of PPE that will be required.
- Provide PPE to employees, whether by purchasing equipment for them, providing the equipment for the employee to purchase, or by helping employees locate and order the required equipment. Check your provincial regulations about providing PPE in the workplace to ensure you are in compliance.
- Consider the ergonomics of PPE during the selection process – is it unnecessarily heavy or uncomfortable? Does wearing multiple pieces of PPE impact their comfort or function? Does the PPE allow for full range of motion?
- Ensure PPE is suitable to the worker and fits properly.
- Ensure workers are trained in PPE so that equipment is consistently worn and used appropriately.
- Listen to women’s concerns about fit, comfort, and safety issues. Make alternate arrangements if their PPE is not adequately protecting the worker or creates a hazard.
- Immediately repair or replace defective PPE.
How Can Gowan Consulting Help?
Gowan Consulting has Occupational Therapy resources to ensure the safety and wellness of your employees and work environment. We provide assessments, program consultation, and training to cover all your workplace health needs.
- Contact us to provide a consultation on your organization’s health and safety programs.
- Take our Psychological Safety at Work Training or Leadership Training on Mental Health, Accommodations, and Inclusion to learn how to build your psychologically safe workplace. Our online workshops and courses cover all the areas of psychological risks within the workplace and assists employers in assessing and reducing the risk by implementing strategies and tools within the workplace.
- Contact us to have a Job Demands Analysis of a job completed to get a detailed outline of the demands and risks of your workplace.
- Make an accommodation referral to have an Occupational Therapist assess the negative or potential impact of PPE on employees with disabilities.
- Keefe, A. (2022). Canadian Women’s Experiences with Personal Protective Equipment in the Workplace. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, ON. Accessed from https://www.csagroup.org/article/research/canadian-womens-experiences-with-personal-protective-equipment-in-the-workplace/