Personal Protective Equipment for a Diverse Workforce Fits the Times

When I read in March that the first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station was postponed, the reason behind the delay was all too familiar: not enough appropriately sized personal protective equipment. In other words, there were not enough spacesuits on the craft appropriate for the women astronauts.

I've worked in occupational health and safety (OHS) for two decades and now serve as the global champion for OHS at BSI, the international business improvement company. Of all the regulatory and technical guidance I've given over the years, advising on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for an increasingly diverse workforce has been a constant. Despite some inroads, fulfillment of this important step for keeping staff safe and healthy remains poor.

Not Just Small Men
As the female NASA astronauts and their minders back on Earth learned, simply supplying something sized for the average man does not address the needs of a more diverse workforce.

Anthropometric data used for years to create measurements for both men and women around the world is old and doesn't fully reflect modern body frames. But it does show quite clearly that fitting a woman isn't the same as creating safety gear for a small man. Women's feet aren't just smaller, they are also generally narrower, so a small-sized male safety boot is unlikely to fit a woman. The same is true of safety gloves—a man's usually will have a palm area too big and fingers too long and wide.

In the end, ill-fitting equipment can increase safety risks and actually cause physical, and even mental, health problems, as well as reduced compliance by the wearers. And this issue of the spacesuit is not a new one; it's been around for some time; Canadian Astronaut Roberta Bondar recently discussed issues she faced in 1992 as part of a space mission.

Male-driven, By Design
Health and safety is an industry that has traditionally been a predominantly male demographic, although this is changing. Because many of the experts who develop the standards for PPE are homogenous, there can be a lack of diversity on the committees that write the regulations. This has an unintended consequence; the standards with which PPE manufacturers have to comply often restrict the ability to make safety equipment suitable for women, people of different body types and sizes, or those of different ethnic backgrounds. Yet more women, people with mobility restrictions, aging workers, and expanding ethnic diversity in the workplace mean that organizations will have to respond to these changes.

Market-driven Changes Afoot
Historically, there was little to no money to be made in selling PPE for a diverse minority of the workforce with the exception being industries where women are predominant or more evenly represented, such as health care or equine work.

But the big challenge still arises in sectors where women are underrepresented. In these jobs, women are either limited to a single PPE supplier or are forced to extremes such as covering the costs of suitable PPE themselves or switching jobs when faced with biological changes such as pregnancy or menopause. And poorly fitting PPE, in addition to being a potential safety risk, can be a source of bullying and harassment.

Breathing New Life Into Standards
One good example of PPE adapting to evolving workplace diversity can be found in the area of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE). Because there is a critical need for these safety products to fit the user properly, a large project was launched by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to produce a set of standards that reflect current research on face shapes by race and gender. Another common type of PPE that can be challenging for some wearers is the body armor worn by police officers; these shields come in set torso lengths and take a uniform approach to the panels for women's breasts.

Interestingly, the ISO project's standard for RPE now specifies an increase in the number of test subjects, up from the norm of 10 people for most European standards to 25 to provide greater representation of human diversity. Another aspect being taken into account in the new standard is any testing of RPE must consider different breathing patterns while performing various physical tasks.

At BSI, where we serve as the U.K. National Standards Body as well as international business improvement partner, we have a project to identify all standards that need to have a "personal" aspect. This includes not only gender and cultural diversity, but also religious, disability, medical, and other forms of body differences, such as amputees.

Workforce participation and consultation have been found to remove obstacles, such as discrimination and embarrassment, that stand in the way of diversely designed PPE. A new global standard on health and safety management, ISO 45001, empowers the workforce to come up with effective solutions for PPE challenges. The standard requires organizations to consider human factors such as how work is performed, the needs and capability of the worker, and the culture of the organization. As a result, a "one-size-fits-all" approach under ISO 45001 becomes inconsistent with good occupational health and safety practices.

In conclusion, an increasingly diverse workforce means not pressuring workers to conform to a single norm for anything, from PPE needs to risk perception to communication style, but rather establishing diversity as the norm. Organizations that want to retain the best workers and ensure worker health and safety will be drivers in the development of a wider selection of PPE. I am hopeful for a near future where a woman's ability to conduct a spacewalk won't be held back by the equipment available.

Kate Field, CMIOSH, acts as expert and ambassador on OHS supporting the delivery of excellence and expertise across the 193 countries the British Standards Institution (BSI) operates in. With a health and safety career spanning two decades, she has authored regulatory and technical guidance, written articles for a range of publications, and is a successful global, keynote speaker and presenter.

Posted on Jun 18, 2019