PPE Puts Canadian Women At Risk

If it isn’t designed for women, it isn’t designed to protect them! With more and more women assuming high risk jobs, it's time to rethink PPE for women.

Did you know that women are often at risk of workplace injuries because of their PPE?

Even though it’s the right PPE for the job, it’s often not right for the women who wear it. Why? Because it was designed for men who are clearly not built the same way as women.  

A study released by the CSA in November 2022 explores this significant safety issue affecting women working in construction, health care, energy and utilities, mining, forestry, manufacturing and other industries where PPE is required.

Canadian Women’s Experiences with Personal Protective Equipment in the Workplace sites some pretty interesting findings: 

  • Women are not smaller anthropometric versions of men.
  • Scaled-down versions of men’s PPE do not address the differences which go way beyond obvious physical characteristics to include respiratory rates, the way men and women experience toxic exposures, and more.
  • More than half the 3000 Canadian women surveyed said the PPE they are required to wear doesn’t fit properly. A third said they use duct tape, rubber bands, and/or safety pins to get a tolerable fit. A quarter said they don’t wear some PPE because the fit is so bad.
  • Availability of PPE designed for women is very low.
  • To ensure their own safety, some women are spending their own time and money sourcing PPE that properly fits.

Getting a proper fit for protective equipment and clothing is essential to trusting it will do its job. If it’s falling off, bunching in places it shouldn’t, or getting in the way, it can distract the worker from the task and hazards at hand.

Woman wearing PPE that does not fit properly and is a hazard.
Loose fitting clothing and ear protection that is not fitted properly creates safety issues.

Also a bit alarming is the fact that not all jurisdictions in Canada require that employers ensure PPE fits properly and is suitable for the hazards present. Requirements for addressing problems with PPE also vary across the country, meaning our workforces face different levels of protection depending on where they are.  

Men are still much more likely to suffer workplace injuries, largely because they dominate high-risk occupations. However, lost-time claim rates have been falling steadily for men over the last two decades, while there has been little change in lost-time claim rates for women.  

So what should employers do? It’s not enough to lean on current legislation and conventional PPE suppliers, regardless of the gender makeup of your organization. It’s also not prudent to wait for the next study to figure out how to protect all genders equally at work.

A good place to start is with the questions employers ask workers who are required to wear PPE:

1. Do you have the PPE required for your tasks?

2. Are you trained to use the PPE correctly?

3. Does it fit you comfortably?

4. Does it allow you to complete your tasks safely and without interference?

If PPE doesn’t fit, employers need to offer alternative solutions to ensuring worker safety. And it’s definitely time to look at PPE suppliers and require they offer options specifically designed for women.

Continuing to supply women with PPE that increases their risk of injury is neglectful of all workers, and it fails the test of due diligence.

NeXafe partner Cari Chernichen has been involved in the development of workplace safety standards in Canada and internationally for more than 30 years.

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