Addressing Physical Differences

Addressing Physical Differences

Men and women are not the same. Don’t provide them with the same PPE.

OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard, 29 CFR 1910.132, was established in 1971 to provide protective equipment whenever the hazards of processes or environment require it. At that time, however, OSHA did not address the proper fit of PPE.  

In 1994, a commenter to a proposed update suggested that OSHA require PPE to fit properly. OSHA agreed, noting that, in the past, males constituted most of the workforce and PPE was sized accordingly. As more and more females entered the workforce, they often had to choose between wearing PPE designed to fit males, and not wearing PPE at all due to improper fit and subsequent discomfort. Since females accounted for a larger percentage of the workforce than ever before, OSHA revised 1910.132(d) to add proper fit as a criterion for PPE selection. Fast forward nearly 30 years, and progress in the PPE space as it pertains to proper fit is still lacking.  

In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women made up nearly one-third of the manufacturing workforce, and roughly 11 percent of construction, accounting for nearly 47 percent of working people in the United States. While compared to previous years where the trend line was gradually increasing, these lower numbers are due in part to current economic issues. However, this does not change the overall trajectory of where women in the workplace are going.  

Gone are the days when employee health and safety was viewed as just a “trend” or something to track on paper. Rather, employers now embrace and foster safety every single day. Executive leaders are more emotionally invested in the physical and mental well-being of their employees.  

Employers can show their support by making a concerted effort to recognize the need created by differences between men and women and addressing those differences to maximize safety and ensuring proper fit. 

Head and Face 

The physical difference. Men and women differ in skeletal structure, where women frequently have a shorter head and broader face. 

The concern. If employers overlook these differences when selecting hard hats, face shields, welding helmets and safety glasses/goggles, they may inadvertently purchase equipment meant for a man that will undoubtedly create an ill-fit if worn by a woman. Ill-fitting PPE can feel bulky and unbalanced to the wearer, even when adjusted according to the manufacturer. They can cause pinch points, headaches and neck and shoulder strain. Improperly sized PPE in the head and face area can also create gaps in coverage which may allow debris to enter the eyes. Wrong-sized safety glasses can slip down the face and more easily fog up, while also creating soreness in the temples. This can all lead to worker distraction, loss of productivity and removal of PPE all together.  

Torso 

The physical difference. Women typically have shorter legs and a longer trunk, compared to men.  

The concern. Select PPE with the proper size for each employee in mind. Workers may need to wear a full body harness, cold weather coveralls, a welding coat or Tyvek suit, chemical splash apron, or FR shirt and pants. Items not properly worn (due to sizing or other issues) can make the difference between the employee being safely covered or dangerously exposed. Oversized PPE may “drown” the worker in excess material, which creates new hazards such as loose clothing getting caught in machinery or overheating in warmer conditions.  

Hands 

The physical difference. The average length of a male hand is 7.6 inches, while a female’s is 6.8 inches. 

The concern. To be effective, PPE must not only protect against the hazard, but also be worn consistently and correctly. Oversized hand protection (i.e., gloves) can create a loss of dexterity. Too small, and you run the risk of causing undue pressure on the hands and increased perspiration, which can lead to fatigue and related injuries.  

Feet 

The physical difference. There are 11 significant differences in a women’s lower limbs compared with male anatomy (two calf, five ankle and four foot shape variables). 

The concern. Safety shoes and boots designed for a man but worn by a woman cannot guarantee the required level of protection. In one sense, all safety footwear is meant to protect against hazards like corrosive materials, electrical hazards, heavy objects, punctures or molten metal. However, the risks of poorly fitting footwear can lead to repetitive strain injury, poor posture, plantar fasciitis, fallen arches and flat feet. Over time, workers can develop secondary injuries to the knees, hips, spine and even the neck.  

The Solution 

Regardless of the specific body part, overall, men and women differ in size and shape. Employers must begin to shift their mindset from offering universal fit and the generalities of small, medium and large. It simply is not working.  

For PPE to fit appropriately, the employer can make a few adjustments: 

Determine if they have a problem. Discuss with employees whether PPE fits appropriately with empathy and an open mind. If the organization does not have a strong safety culture, employees may not want to share their concerns for fear of reprimand. They may also see their individual needs as an added expense that they do not want to burden the company with. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they may not mention a problem because there simply isn’t one! Despite this good news, don’t stop there. Continue to work with employees and collect feedback on the PPE currently in use and whether future enhancements can be made.  

Talk with female employees. Discuss current issues with the PPE offered. Discuss areas of potential concern, such as improper fit and discomfort. Determine if they bypass these concerns and put themselves at increased risk. If so, your safety program may need to be reassessed. Involve them in coming up with solutions. This will not only improve the situation but will also aid in obtaining employee buy-in for improving your organization’s safety culture.  

Review your injury records and near miss reports. Look for any trends involving PPE usage (or lack thereof). A strong near-miss program can help to identify potential issues before they become more serious and life threatening.  

Widen your network. Look for suppliers offering PPE specifically sized for females. While the PPE space is still largely geared towards men, the landscape is slowly shifting to include women as a specific market base. Involve your employees in the purchasing process, as they may have already done the research on alternative PPE solutions to better address their specific situations. 

Manufacturing and construction industries expose the worker to a multitude of hazards, including falling objects, flying debris, excessive noise, chemicals, punctures and working from heights. The hazards associated with women-held roles are no different than that of their male-counterparts. It is common in the safety world to rationalize PPE as being the last line of defense for mitigating hazard exposure. When PPE is required, we must not settle for ill-fitting equipment that increases the potential for injury.  

As safety professionals, we are continually looking for ways to make a positive impact in the industry. It’s imperative we ride the wave of investment and change, while also trying to capitalize on it. With economic improvements on the horizon, PPE being on the hearts and minds of all decision makers, and more women joining the labor force, now is the perfect time to add additional emphasis on proper fit (or current lack thereof) as it pertains to women physique’s while wearing PPE.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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