“Health professionals, experts and unions say poorly fitting equipment is risking the lives of female workers.”
Some talk of abrasions on their faces caused by having to pull masks too tightly, others talk about having to roll up the sleeves of their fluid-repellent gowns. Some have been left barely able to see, while others have used tape to seal gaps around their jawline. The thing they all have in common? They are trying to save lives – and they are women.
NHS professional bodies, experts and trade unions have warned that female healthcare workers’ lives are being put at risk because personal protective equipment is designed for men. As one frontline NHS worker put it: “PPE is designed for a 6 foot 3 inch bloke built like a rugby player.” Dr. Helen Fidler, the deputy chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) UK consultants committee, says: “Women’s lives are absolutely being put at risk because of ill-fitting PPE. We know that properly fitted PPE works, but masks are designed for a male template, with the irony being that 75% of workers in the NHS are female.”
Caroline Criado-Perez, whose book Invisible Women addresses the issue of ill-fitting PPE for women in one of its chapters, said she has been inundated with messages from healthcare workers who could not find protective equipment to fit them. “Respiratory protective equipment is designed for a male face, and if it doesn’t fit, it won’t protect,” she explains.
One intensive care nurse revealed that half of the women in her unit had failed the fit test – a rigorous process which ensures that health workers wear the right size mask, which does not leak – on both of the FFP3 masks available. “The only men I know of that have failed are either very small, or ones that refuse to shave their beards so don’t get a tight fit. Sexism is very much present here,” she says.