Considering Comfort in Women's PPE
Protective clothing should never be altered to make it fit the user. Doing so could compromise its ergonomic and safety features.
When it comes to personal protective equipment, one size does not fit all. While there are some requirements that apply across the board, there are a few additional considerations to address when it comes to outfitting women in protective clothing.
In this article, I’ll discuss compliance as it relates to comfort when choosing safety apparel.
Good Fit Ensures Use
While supplying PPE for the workplace is required, making the extra effort to ensure it is comfortable will help make sure the equipment is worn when needed.
In a 2016 survey of safety professionals and users conducted by ISEA and VPPPA over 90% of those surveyed stated they had witnessed workers not wearing PPE in situations that required it.
When equipment is awkward or bulky, employees are reluctant to wear it. Outfitting all workers with comfortable gear can increase compliance and lead to a safer, more productive workforce. That alone makes it worth the time and investment.
(See One Size Does Not Fit All When It Comes to Protective Clothing for related reading.)
There are two major areas to consider when it comes to comfort in PPE: proper fit and avoiding heat stress.
Proper Fit in PPE
As outlined by the NFPA and OSHA, it is the employer’s responsibility to conduct an arc flash assessment to identify potential hazards and provide the appropriate safety equipment to protect against those potential hazards. Additionally, it is the employer’s responsibility to educate employees on potential hazards and the use of PPE. Hazards aside, employees should also educate on the proper fit of the PPE. It is crucial for proper protection that it fit correctly.
“Whenever employers are required to purchase PPE, they should purchase these items in size ranges suitable for women.” - OSHA, Women in Construction
Poorly fitting safety gear can result in decreased mobility, dexterity, and coordination. Oversized garments or gloves and improperly fitted boots or shoes are also contributors.
Working in ill-fitted PPE is dangerous, unnecessary, and easily avoided. However, correctly sized safety apparel for women can be hard to come by in the workplace. In today’s world, women shouldn’t have to settle for wearing PPE garments designed to fit a man. There are several companies that offer product lines for women where fit, function, and fashion combine to create workwear that you can put on and forget about, knowing you are compliant and protected.
If you aren't provided with PPE that fits your body type, talk to your supervisor of safety manager about women-specific gear.
“Making it work” or being crafty with oversized safety apparel is not advisable. Always try on multiple garments to get the best fit. If you’re curvy, review the sizing chart of several brands and look at the differences in waist and hips. If you’re less curvy, it may be that a men’s coverall is a better fit. Take the time up front to find the best fit so you aren’t distracted by having to repeatedly adjust your clothing and, instead, can focus on the job at hand.
It is never recommended to alter safety gear as it does not address ergonomics and you’re simply inviting a host of additional non-compliance issues. Even folding cuffs or rolling up the sleeves could be a hazard in certain situations. Also, consider the fact that FR clothing is often constructed with FR thread. If it is altered using non-FR thread, it can compromise the protection it provides.
Comfortable PPE Reduces the Risk of Heat Stress
OSHA states that the “Use of bulky or non-breathable protective clothing and equipment” is a factor that puts workers at a greater risk for heat-related illness.
Heat Stress is a hazard that can affect all workers. This can be addressed through prevention techniques, PPE selection among them. Avoiding heat stress is a major factor in addressing comfort in safety apparel. When protective clothing is comfortable and fits properly, compliance increases overall.
What Is Heat Stress?
When the body is unable to properly perform its natural cooling process, it results in a failure to regulate body temperature.
An individual suffering from heat stress can experience fatigue, cramping, dizziness, heat rash, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Working in this state can lead to accidents and fatal mistakes on the job site.
(Learn more in Workers and Heat Stress: What You Need to Know.)
Based on end user research, a comfortable garment has three important characteristics:
- Lightweight: fabric that won’t weigh you down
- Breathable: allows heat and air to flow through
- Moisture Wicking: pulls moisture away from the body.
Lightweight garments that breathe do not impair the body’s natural cooling process and moisture management aids in cooling.
Workers suffering from heat exhaustion are at greater risk for accidents since they are less alert and may not be able to think clearly - OSHA Heat Training Guide
Comfortable PPE that also fits correctly encourages a safer, more productive workforce. When you choose garments that reduce the risk of stress, workers maintain better focus. When workers aren’t distracted by heat stress discomfort or improperly sized apparel they make less mistakes and engage in safer work practices. Human error is often the root cause of an arc flash incident and by minimizing or eliminating heat stress and ill-fitting PPE as a factor you will yield a safer work environment.
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