PPE for women does not fit: 2024 survey results

Over six months in 2023-24 the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) undertook a substantial consultation of the female workforce in UK engineering surveying just under 1500 wearers of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The results were analysed by Rocket Science, an independent research organisation and are published today. The analysis shows that women are being ignored when it comes to providing safe and effective PPE, resulting in dangerous working practices for women and a lack of equality within the workplace. WES intends to work to change these practices by measuring thousands of women to develop proper-fitting PPE and engaging with manufacturers and government to produce safe and effective PPE for all. We call on all women who wear PPE to get involved at www.wes.org.uk/PPE

The results of the 2024 survey show just how little has changed since WES’ first PPE survey was completed in 2009. PPE is still based on male body types with 60% of men reporting comfortable or perfect fitting PPE, and only 26% of women saying the same. This means women are either having to wear items that don’t fit, risking their health and safety, or potentially give up working altogether. Some respondents noted the climbing harnesses, lifejackets, or air systems they use do not work for their bodies increasing risk to life. 42% of women reported that PPE is often too big to fit correctly resulting in women making modifications against HSE guidance. Examples include tucking too-long trousers into boots meaning that they are not waterproof so can’t prevent water-borne disease, or are a risk to women’s safety. By conducting a nationwide measuring study of women, WES intends to use this information to engage with manufacturers to increase equality in the workplace.

A key finding of the survey is the lack of maternity PPE, with 61% of pregnant women not being provided with correct items allowing them to work safely.  There is also no provision for PPE to take into account bodily changes due to periods or the menopause, or medical conditions such as stomas or limb differences, creating barriers for people to work. Other respondents state they had to give up working in certain areas such as workshops due to a lack of fitting gloves, hats or eye protection. It is clear from the results that the differing needs of women to men are not being considered, and often clothes are not being made to the same safety standards as men’s.

When these challenges and their effects are raised with colleagues or managers, little is done to facilitate women’s access to better fitting PPE. More than half of the women who raised concerns reported nothing changed, compared to just 9% who said their concerns were fully addressed. Other responses included employers did not acknowledge their concerns, acknowledged their concerns but did nothing, or, in some cases, ridiculed women for raising these concerns.

Overall the survey showed that women have very little choice when it came to PPE: they either have to give up work or risk working using unsafe equipment. WES intends to change this and hopes that by measuring as many women as possible we will be able to influence manufacturers to make changes as well as lobby government to make access to fit-for-purpose PPE a right within employment legislation.

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