Personal protective equipment

Women and PPE: Finding the right fit

Employers need to keep women in mind when purchasing PPE


Key points

  • PPE such as gloves, fall-arrest harnesses and safety boots that are designed for men may not fit women because of differences in average body dimensions.
  • Some experts insist that employers should provide separate PPE for men and women rather than unisex PPE, which may not fit a woman properly.
  • Employers should seek out distributors that offer a full range of PPE for both men and women, stakeholders say.

Personal protective equipment is one of the last lines of defense for workers against injuries. However, in certain industries such as construction, women are less fortunate than men when it comes to finding gear that fits properly.

“I am a woman under 5 feet [tall] and I can tell you, there isn’t much PPE that fits me properly.” – Leah Curran, an employee with New Castle, DE-based Tri-Supply & Equipment

“I have had many difficulties in providing my female workers with properly fitting PPE. Anywhere from women’s fire-retardant clothing to gloves appropriate for the job.” – Jeannette Fletter, environmental, health and safety manager for Belectric, a Newark, CA-based renewable energy sources provider

“When I first started and needed to wear a hard hat, I’d have to try three or four different models before finding one I was comfortable with.” – Jennifer Grande, safety coordinator with Collins, NY-based Gernatt Asphalt Products Inc.

OSHA cites the lack of a full range of PPE sizes and types at the retail, wholesale and distributor levels – as well as employers’ limited knowledge of PPE designed for women – as some of the reasons for the difficulty women encounter with PPE.

Another issue may be the low number of women in industries requiring PPE. According to OSHA, in 2010 about 9 percent of workers – or 818,000 – in the construction industry were women. Of those, only about 200,000 worked as laborers or in other positions at construction sites.

“Since the industry is majority employed by men, the majority of PPE is going to fit men, but that doesn’t mean PPE shouldn’t be made to fit women,” said Curran, who also is the incoming safety chair for the Fort Worth, TX-based National Association of Women in Construction. “Women may face safety risks because PPE and clothing are often designed for the average-sized [man].”

Ill-fitting equipment

PPE cannot protect a worker from hazards if it does not fit. Equipment designed for men may not fit women properly due to differences in body size, height and composition, said Hongwei Hsiao, chief of the Protective Technology Branch with NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research.

“Women are not just [the] ‘small size’ of men; their body configurations … are different from those of men,” Hsiao said.

Grande pointed to gloves and hard hats as examples of how poor fit can affect safety. “If gloves don’t fit right – if they are too big – they’re clumsy, and you may not be able to do your job as well,” she said. “If your hard hat falls off every time you look up, that’s not a good thing either – you may need to use one hand to hold it on.”

According to Ziqing Zhuang, the respiratory protection research team leader of the Technology Research Branch at the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, women may have a hard time finding protective clothing, fall-arrest harnesses and gloves that are not too large.

Safety boots may be one of the most difficult pieces of PPE for female workers to find, Zhuang said, and he disagrees with a common notion that women should simply wear a man’s boot that is “two sizes smaller.” According to a 2006 publication from the Industrial Accident Prevention Association and the Ontario Women’s Directorate, a typical woman’s foot is both shorter and narrower than a typical man’s foot, so a smaller boot may be the right length but not the right width.

PPE tips for women

A publication developed by the Industrial Accident Prevention Association and the Ontario Women’s Directorate in 2006 offers tips for women workers looking for personal protective equipment that fits.

  • Earplugs – Disposable, foam earplugs are more likely to fit women, who typically have smaller ear canals.
  • Hard hats – Adding a chin strap can help hard hats or caps fit better and not fall off.
  • Safety goggles – Beware of goggles that state “one size fits all” – some may be too large for a woman’s face and could allow objects, fluids or other hazardous materials to enter through gaps in the seals.
  • Protective clothing – Taking a man’s garment and modifying it to fit a woman, such as rolling up sleeves or pant legs, can be dangerous because the excess material can become caught in machinery.
  • Safety gloves – Ensure all exposed skin is covered; the gloves allow for a safe grip so tools will not easily slip out of the hands; and the finger length, width and palm circumference of the gloves match those of the hands.

Unisex or female-specific?

To help ensure female workers are protected, manufacturers can design PPE that can fit both men and women, or – as some already do – design PPE specifically to fit women.

Hsiao does not consider the unisex approach appropriate for all PPE. For instance, fall-arrest harnesses do not lend themselves well to unisex designs – differences in the chest, hips and thighs can affect the angles that straps fit into the harnesses, he said.

According to a 2013 study published in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (Vol. 55, No. 1), an improperly sized harness can hinder a worker’s movements and affect the ability to work safely. It also can increase the worker’s risk of “suspension trauma” after a fall, a potentially fatal condition in which blood pools in the legs and reduces the amount of blood in circulation. The researchers recommended that employers invest in gender-specific fall harnesses with three sizes for each sex, rather than continue using four to seven typical unisex models.

The 2006 publication from the Industrial Accident Prevention Association and the Ontario Women’s Directorate highlights another issue with unisex equipment at construction sites: “one-size-fits-all” PPE that tends to be too large for women. This often occurs with gloves that are ordered only in large or extra-large sizes, the publication notes, because these tend to be the most popular male sizes.

“Universal PPE is unacceptable,” Curran said.

However, Zhuang states that purchasing unisex equipment in a variety of sizes may be an appropriate solution in the case of respirators.

In a 2005 study he co-authored on how respirators fit different workers, 16 out of 18 respirators tested did not show any significant differences in fit between men and women. The study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (Vol. 2, No. 12), instead found that face length and width were more important factors in fit.

Accommodating differences

Even when providing PPE designed specifically for each sex, employers must be sure to accommodate differences in body types, Hsiao said.

“It should be remembered that some workers may need to try on more than one size in order to select the best-fit size even though the design is [specific to each sex] because the overall combination of their body dimension governs the size,” he said. “Body weight and stature alone … do not exactly define who wears each size.”

The construction industry workforce is very diverse, Grande added, and people come in different shapes and sizes.

“Everybody should be able to find safety products that fit comfortably and keep people safe,” she said.


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