Women’s safety being put at risk by ill-fitting PPE, warns TUC

Thomas Tevlin
09 May 2017
Employers have been urged to avoid personal protective equipment suppliers that fail to offer a suitable range of sizes for both sexes after a TUC survey found just three in 10 (29%) of female workers are being given protective clothing and equipment specifically designed for them.  
 
The TUC report, Personal protective equipment and women; guidance for workplace representatives, also says 57% of the women questioned reported their PPE sometimes or significantly hampers their work, posing potential risks to their health and safety. For example, the report says wearing the wrong shoes or overalls can increase the risk of tripping, while women often report that safety harnesses, belts and body armour can cause rub against the skin due to the manufacturer's failure to accomodate different sized female hips.
 
Overall, more than two in five (41%) of the approximately 5,700 women questioned said the protective trousers issued to them were inappropriate; and more than one in three (35%) reported their overalls were unsuitable for their work duties.
 
The survey also found that half of women who had been pregnant at work had “been forced” to either cut back their normal duties or change their role in the run-up to giving birth due suitable PPE not being available or supplied to them.
 
According to the TUC, the problem arises because most PPE is designed in line with the sizes and characteristics of male populations in Europe and the United States. “As a result, most women, and also many men, experience problems finding suitable and comfortable PPE because they do not conform to this standard male worker model,” it says.
 
"For instance, the use of a ‘standard’ US male face shape in the manufacture of RPE (respiratory protective equipment) means that it does not fit most women as well as a lot of men from black and minority ethnic groups or with facial hair. Another example is safety boots as a typical women’s foot is both shorter and narrower than a typical man’s foot, so a smaller boot may be the right length but not the right width."  
 
The TUC is therefore calling on union representatives to encourage their employers to ensure PPE suppliers have properly assessed the appropriateness of their equipment for women. It also says reps should encourage bosses to ensure that, if there is a need for separate PPE for men and women, they provide the same range of sizes for women as for men. Other suggestions for tackling the problem include reps encouraging employers to allow female staff to try on several types of PPE before selecting the final equipment to ensure a correct fit, and urging bosses to lobby their trade association to pressure PPE manufacturers if there are issues about the suitability of particular types of equipment for women.
 
The report adds that, with rising numbers of women entering sectors such as construction and engineering, the provision of PPE suitable for both sexes should be viewed as an "important equality issue". 
 
"For too long many occupations and industries have had big issues around job segregation," it argues. "In sectors like construction and engineering only very recently have women begun to be more visible. Unless women in these sectors have the same access to safe and comfortable PPE they will continue to find it much harder to work on an equal footing to men."   
 
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “I’m shocked that so many women... do not have the right protective clothing to do their jobs safely.
 
“Bosses’ complacency risks serious injury. It shouldn’t be hard to ensure protective uniforms come in men’s and women’s sizes.”
 
The findings in the report are based on 2,655 responses to a TUC survey and 3,086 responses to a survey by the Women’s Engineering Society and the Prospect union, carried out in 2016.