Why Inclusive PPE Should Be A Priority For All Businesses

Inclusive PPE may not be at the top of many businesses' priorities, but the implications of not having suitably fitting PPE for all employees can be just as dangerous as having no protection at all.

I work as a Health and Safety Trainer, Adviser, and Auditor for PETA and I find myself in an employment role which I enjoy very much and brings me great satisfaction. PETA has a diverse range of customers, many of them members of PETA, so I might find myself in an engineering or manufacturing company one day, and in a housing association or national charity the next.

Mine can be a diverse role, and although I do spend a lot of time delivering training in a classroom environment, other aspects of the job will include spending time in a variety of working environments where I might be gathering evidence during an audit visit or familiarising myself with an organisation’s operations and equipment ahead of designing and delivering training for the organisation. Frequently a planned visit to discuss a matter face to face with a customer, leads to them inviting me on an impromptu tour of the factory, workshops or warehouses.

Invariably, before entering the working environment, I will be required to wear one or more items of personal protective equipment or clothing (PPE/C), typically, for example, a high visibility (hi-vis) vest, and/or safety glasses. Frequently however, I am faced with the same problem, being that the said items, as supplied for visitors by the organisation I am visiting, simply do not fit or are unwearable. How many times have I been handed a medium sized hi-vis vest which I struggle to don, as those of you reading who know me, will appreciate that I’m more of an XXL person! I have also been offered safety glasses which look slick and trendy but are useless to me as I wear prescription spectacles, and the safety glasses I am presented with are not of the type which can be worn over my glasses. I would imagine visitor’s PPE/C being ordered as a task without any thought going towards the differential of visitors to the organisation.

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Taking the opportunity to explore this matter of ill-fitting PPE/C, it would appear to be a much larger problem than just my misfortunes, and an issue being experienced by many different workers in many different industries who are required, through the risk assessment process, to wear PPE/C as a control measure in order to protect themselves. This is a matter of inclusive, or rather a problem of non-inclusive PPE/C.

So what is meant by inclusive PPE/C? Inclusive PPE/C is about accounting for the fact that the human body and personal requirements vary between people based on factors like their gender, height, weight, abilities, and their culture or religious beliefs. PPE/C your organisation supplies to its workers may be well sourced and well managed, but if it’s not inclusive then it could be increasing the risk to those workers. It’s a big problem for both workers and employers: buying protective equipment that doesn’t fit correctly means the wearer doesn’t get the same protection. Worse, ill-fitting PPE can get in the way of workers doing their job correctly and even present new hazards.

Many people will make an association with PPE/C being used by construction workers or tradespersons, which are dominated by male workers of common sizes and builds. Non-inclusive PPE/C is, it would seem, an issue to be addressed across workplaces in all industries. Consider, for example, hospitals where the workforce tends to be more diverse than construction and trades and tends to be more female orientated. In the UK, during the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions imposed during 2020 to 2022, female nurses were reported to be more likely to get COVID-19 because of poorly fitting PPE/C. It is reckoned only three in ten women had PPE/C fitted to the female frame.

Here's a hypothetical example based on conversations I have had with factory workers which can (and I’m quite sure does) happen across all industries.

A worker with small hands gets issued with a pair of large safety gloves. Because their gloves do not fit properly, they are unable to perform their job function correctly. They may:
• struggle with the grip because the gloves are too big
• get their gloves caught in machinery
• lose fine motor skills and dexterity
• choose not to wear gloves because wearing gloves which are too big can feel more dangerous than not wearing any hand protection at all.

All of these outcomes leave the worker vulnerable to hand injuries.

Here’s another possibility:
An organisation might buy a run of nice fleeces for the whole team as a gesture of camaraderie. But if you give a size S worker a size XL fleece, then they are unlikely to wear it because it’s far too big. The worker may even feel less like they’re a valued part of the team. In this way, a lack of inclusivity is a morale and productivity issue, which are also further health and safety issues.

There is an increasing number of suppliers offering PPE/C especially for people of different sizes, abilities, and cultures. You can source inclusive PPE/C including:
• Extra small and small safety glove and safety boot sizes
• Jackets for people of varying heights
• Maternity PPE to cater to pregnant people
• High-vis clothing and accessories for wheelchair users
• Hi-vis clothing for women’s builds
• Fall protection for women’s frames
• PPE for Muslim women

My closing statement is a question (and perhaps a challenge). As an employer, or does your employer, supply the PPE required by the risk assessment, or the PPE/C workers actually NEED to protect them?