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Women are Not Small Men: The Dangers of Poorly Fitting PPE

Women hold 76 percent of all healthcare jobs. Yet, despite taking up the majority of the space in the industry, most women claim that their PPE, or personal protective equipment, needs to properly fit them. When asked about how they felt about their equipment, women commonly associated the words “manly”, “wrong size”, and uncomfortable with their garments. 

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, this problem has only been exacerbated. Nurses didn’t have the privilege of simply finding a mask in their size when there were already such low supplies. In the UK, nurses have reported having abrasions on their faces and having to tape masks to their jawlines. Due to their ill-fitting masks, female healthcare workers were put at a higher risk while working in COVID wards. One may ask, how did we get to a place in which so many women lack the proper supplies to protect themselves? Some think that since women make up the majority of healthcare workers, they take up all of the masks that are made for women quickly, leaving only male-fitted masks behind. But if this were true, why wouldn’t the majority of masks be made for women, if women make up the majority of the industry? Shouldn’t an industry composed of them provide for them?

Caroline Criado Perez, the author of Invisible Women, brought awareness to this issue. She shared, “Respiratory protective equipment is designed for a male face, and if it doesn’t fit it won’t protect …Because of a dearth of sex-disaggregated data we don’t know how many women are affected, but I am hearing daily from women in the NHS who say they can’t get their masks to fit.”

Despite all of the new publicity the pandemic brought to this injustice, this issue is not new. A 2016 study conducted by the TUC and trade union Prospect revealed that 57 percent of women surveyed reported that their PPE sometimes or significantly obstructed their work. These results, however, are not at all surprising. Most PPE is based on the characteristics of European men. Commonly, PPE manufacturers believe that to make garments for women, they can just scale down the male versions. Even so, women are not just smaller versions of men. When these companies try to take a one-size-fits-all approach, they fail to consider the anatomical differences between male and female bodies. 

After examining the negative effects of poorly fitted PPE, the question arises, what can employers do to ensure that their female healthcare workers are safe? For starters, they can begin by having their employees try on supplies like masks and gloves to make sure that they can wear them without them hindering their work. They should also make the effort to avoid suppliers who either refuse to provide a wide range of sizes for women or those who simply take the “scaling down” approach. Lastly, employers can listen to their employees when they advocate for change, rather than continuing to uphold the status quo. 


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