#PPEthatfits: lessons from the US on inclusive PPE regulations

As the call for inclusive PPE gains momentum globally, Nyaisha Sullivan delves into the lessons the UK can take from the United States on ensuring PPE inclusivity.

Inclusive PPE
(Image: Bunlue Nantaprom via Dreamstime.com)

Personal protective equipment (PPE) plays a vital role in safeguarding workers across various industries, not least in construction.

In the UK, under the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations (PPER) 2022, employers must provide PPE free of charge following a risk assessment.

However, the effectiveness of PPE hinges on proper fit, as highlighted by the Health & Safety Executive’s guidance on the PPER regulations, acknowledging the significant variations in workers’ physical dimensions.

Beyond gender inequalities

The issue of ill-fitting PPE is not exclusive to gender disparities, although research in the UK and abroad has shown that women often struggle to obtain PPE in suitable sizes and shapes.

A 2020 survey by professional engineers trade union Prospect revealed that 48.5% of women and 16.6% of men experienced ill-fitting PPE trousers, while 44.7% of women and 15.3% of men faced issues with ill-fitting overalls.

The problem extends beyond gender to encompass diverse needs, including those of young apprentices requiring smaller sizes and larger workers facing challenges with items such as harnesses.

Mugshot of a woman smiling at the camera

“The problem of ill-fitting extends beyond gender to encompass diverse needs.”

Nyaisha Sullivan, Veriforce CHAS

Ill-fitting PPE poses significant risks, potentially compromising worker safety and leading to additional hazards. The consequences range from reduced grip and mobility, to increased reaction time and altered muscle activation, as indicated by a 2022 systematic review exploring the impact of PPE fit on occupational performance.

To address these challenges, there is a growing movement in the UK towards ensuring all workers have access to properly fitting PPE. The #PPEthatfits campaign, launched by the Chartered Institute of Building, CIOB People and Construction Management, aims to raise awareness about the lack of inclusive PPE and its impact on health and safety, as well as workforce diversity.

US sets new standards

In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set new standards regarding PPE fit, emphasising the selection of PPE that “properly fits” each employee.

OSHA’s proposed rulemaking in July 2023 sought to extend this requirement to the construction industry, emphasising the need for construction employers to ensure that employees have PPE that fits properly.

While questions have been raised about the proposed changes, OSHA maintains that the phrase “properly fits” is well understood in general industry. To comply with these standards, construction employers must assess their PPE programmes, considering factors such as gender, race, age and body size.

In the UK, the PPER 2022 provides details on employers’ responsibilities regarding PPE, but lacks explicit obligations to provide items that properly fit. Embracing the principles set by OSHA’s proposed regulations could offer a positive path forward for the UK, enhancing worker safety and promoting inclusivity within the industry.

Ultimately, recognising that one size does not fit all is paramount for employers to take action and ensure that all workers have access to PPE that fits, creating a safer and more supportive workplace for everyone.

Nyaisha Sullivan is construction lead at Veriforce CHAS.

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