“PPE is still made for a 6ft 3in male rugby player”
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is anything used or worn by a person to minimise the risk to health or safety. PPE includes boots, face masks, hard hats, ear plugs, respirators, gloves, high visibility clothing and safety harnesses.
A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of workers including putting control measures in place to protect their workers’ health and safety such as supplying and ensuring PPE is worn and is fit for purpose and functional. As the PCBU, you must select the type of PPE that:
- protects the worker’s without creating its own risks;
- is the right PPE for the work, and any hazards posed by the work;
- fits properly and is comfortable; and
- is compatible with other PPE worn.
The full legal requirements for businesses in this aspect are set out in Regulations 36, 44 and 45 of the model WHS Regulations.
As the number of women employed in heavy industry continues to rise, it is important for businesses to ensure that any PPE required to be worn by female workers can be worn correctly and comfortably. This should include consultation with female employees to ensure correct sizing and fitting is tailored to the female body shape.
Ill or tight-fitting PPE can cause restricted mobility or loose hanging clothing that is too large for female bodies can create additional risks particularly when working with heavy machinery and plant.
Gender makes a difference
Regardless of height or weight, women tend to have a smaller bone structure than men, with shorter narrower hands and feet and smaller facial shape and features. These are common differences not taken into account by a majority of PPE designers.
A report completed by the Ontario Women’s Directorate and Industrial Accident Prevention Association gave multiple examples of what can occur when women have to “make do” with PPE that clearly is not made for them, including:
- a woman with a small face wears the goggles available in the shop – the gaps they leave at her temples allow flying debris from the machine to enter her eyes;
- a female worker in a sawmill can only get small men’s sized gloves – the fingers are too long and too wide, the palm area is too large, and the cuff allows sawdust to fill the fingers, further causes a risk of getting her fingers caught in machinery and pinched when she stacks or carries boards; and
- a woman who wears men’s sized work boots reports tripping while calking and climbing stairs or ladders – she also suffers from blisters and burning on the soles of her feet and because her boots are too large, her toes are not protected by the steel cap.
There are now some PPE suppliers in the market that cater to women’s sizing and choices and PCBU’s and employers should be strongly encouraged to explore these options in order to comply with their WHS obligations and focus on risks associated with their female workforce.