Women and Workwear – are we doing enough?

As more and more industries are aiming to attract women to male-dominated sectors, there has been an increasing focus on the practicalities of having a more equal workforce in terms of addressing gender disparity. Inviting women into traditionally male sectors such as construction or engineering is without a doubt extremely positive. However, there is growing awareness that while the lip service paid to attracting female workers into predominantly male roles is all well and good, some sectors may still have much work to do, before they can achieve genuine equality.

Recently, there has been growing awareness that the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Workwear provided across many sectors including construction, engineering, and the health service is not designed to accommodate the specific needs and preferences of a female workforce. With the majority of PPE being designed at best as ‘unisex’, and at worst as just for male staff, it seems that women are being left out in the cold in many industry sectors.

An essential element of wider workplace health and safety

PPE is an essential part of workplace health and safety, and more required than ever before since the commencement of the Covid-19 pandemic this year. The Department of Health indicates that PPE is designed for the protection of both genders, but workers on the front line are sceptical of this assertion, as their real experiences indicate otherwise. Even if the Department of Health is correct, then it’s evident that the different shapes and sizes of individuals of both genders can be shoe-horned into a ‘one size fits all’ solution for PPE, uniform and Workwear.

Healthcare workers have reported that even the smallest sizes available for most standard items of PPE are simply too big to be worn comfortably by women. With females making up approximately 80% of the workforce within the National Health Service, according to 2018 figures by NHS Digital, how has this glaring inequality gone unnoticed for so long?

Outsized PPE is not just distracting and uncomfortable for individuals to wear for extended periods of time. It can also be totally ineffective in safeguarding the wearer from identified workplace risks to health. Larger products cannot provide sufficient protection from risks such as the Covid-19 virus, as products have to be a good fit for the wearer, to create the barriers necessary in halting onward transmission and individual contagion.

A Department of Health spokesperson has stated: “PPE is designed to be unisex and offer protection for both genders, although some products are available in different sizes to enable fit to both small and larger frames”. However, a representative from the Royal College of Nursing has countered this statement, saying that off-the-shelf PPE products are both problematic and restrictive for workers on the front line of the pandemic, who are required to wear safety products for up to twelve hours at a time. In the lockdown period earlier this year, social media was saturated with images of women with bruised faces stemming from ill-fitting masks and visors. Gloves, masks, face shields and gowns designed for the male proportions will obviously be at best, uncomfortable, and at worst, dangerous for more petite frames and faces.

Rose Gallagher, the Professional Lead for Infection Prevention and Control has stated: “Nurses can find it very difficult to treat patients if this equipment is so uncomfortable it makes them hot and unwell.”

How PPE is limited by a lack of equality

Many standard items of PPE are manufactured to limited styles and sizing, which can make it practically impossible for anyone considered ‘non-standard’ in terms of their body shape or size to wear in safety and comfort. For example, N95 masks are only supplied in two stock sizes, and even then smaller sizes are hard to get hold of. A scholar-in-residence from Stanford University in New York has stated: “There are only two sizes of the N95 mask, which is bizarre – what else comes in just two sizes? We’re suggesting that all faces on the planet are one of two sizes. My hands are a size 6, I’m wearing a 6.5 glove – the goggles have a really good [protective] seal but they just don’t fit.”

It’s time to transition from a male-dominated approach to PPE

There is an increasing call for manufacturers to start considering women when it comes to designing PPE and Workwear. At Rokwear, we’ve listened to our female customer base and workforce, and we’re responding to address the inequalities associated with traditional/conventional safety products. That’s why we’ve designed cargo trousers and polo shirts specifically for the female frame, and gloves and safety footwear which is made for smaller sizes. We want to celebrate the increasing numbers of women joining STEM industry sectors, and we pledge to continue to support our full customer demographic, through tailored, innovative solutions.

If you have any challenges related to your current suite of products, we’d love to hear them – get in touch with your Customer Service Executive today, to share your experiences and let us collaborate to overcome them.

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