Covid-19 has highlighted concerns around shortages of personal protective equipment, but a simple fact remains largely ignored; in our healthcare system, where 77% of staff are women, PPE does not protect female staff as well as their males colleagues.
PPE isn’t a good fit for females
Female healthcare workers (HCWs) report that goggles slip, gowns are too long, face shields push against breasts, and respirators don’t fit their faces. Those that fail fit tests may be forced to choose between wearing shared powered respirators (often in short supply and inadequately cleaned), or wearing ill-fitting items through an obligation to put the needs of patients’ above their own right to safe PPE. Many female HCWs accept this as the norm, unaware that they fail fit tests because PPE is designed primarily for Caucasian men. Shape and size determine whether a person fits PPE, and therefore PPE may be less likely to fit HCWs of some ethnicities.
Women have reported problems with PPE in many industries including science, manufacturing, policing, and the military. Women are not small men. One-size-fits-all equipment designed on male body templates ignores the impact of biological features such as facial geometry and breasts. The media has presented anecdotal evidence regarding the inadequacy of PPE for females HCWs, supporting previously expressed views of trade unions that, surprisingly, have remained quiet on this problem although it impacts the UK’s biggest employer on a national scale.
Disaggregated data is crucial
Data analysis at our own institution has provided empirical evidence that, although males HCWs also fail fit tests, female staff fail respirator fit tests significantly more often. Analysis was not easy as gender or sex weren’t recorded. Nationally, disaggregated data is not collected during fit testing.
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Date: March 9, 2021