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These Women Health Care Workers Say They Are Being Put At Risk During The UK's Coronavirus Crisis By Ill-Fitting PPE

The results of an online survey from Prospect trade union showed that roughly twice as many women as men had problems with poorly fitting PPE.

Justin Kernoghan / PA

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Women health workers have told BuzzFeed News that ill-fitting personal protective equipment designed for men is putting them at risk of infection for the coronavirus, as a trade union released data showing that almost half of women found their PPE didn’t fit properly.

The results of an online survey from the Prospect union, released exclusively to BuzzFeed News, showed that roughly twice as many women as men had problems with poorly fitting PPE — an issue it said should not be allowed to persist in the “middle of the biggest acute health crisis in generations”.

The trade union surveyed workers across a range of sectors, including energy generation, lab technicians, airport workers, and Defra vets — all of whom would use the same items of PPE as frontline health workers.

One ICU doctor working on the front line told BuzzFeed News her biggest problem was with gowns. She described herself as “a petite woman, who wears a size 8 to 10,” but said that the gowns she is provided with are designed “for a man several sizes larger.”

She said the supplied gowns “tend to come in extra-large type sizes”, adding, “That particularly means that the neck of the gown, it gapes really quite far down, so that part of your upper chest and your scrub top is exposed, so you're not really getting the full protection. If people cough or there's exposure to coronavirus through medical procedures, that part of your body is quite exposed.”

She said the fact they were so cumbersome meant: “You're sort of breaching the standardised way of taking them on and off and putting yourself at risk of touching parts of the dirty gown that have been exposed to [...] coronavirus secretions because you're [...] having to hold on to bits of furniture to stay [stable] as you pull this giant thing on or off.”

She said there were other issues with the gowns: "[They] are too big at the sleeves, and so they're not fully covered by the gloves that we’re asked to put on top of them. So you end up with these sort of gaping sections where the skin of your wrist can be exposed."

Prospect

Caroline, a maternity voices partnership chair, has been working with a maternity hospital to source protective equipment for midwives, after the PPE they were supplied was found to be unsuitable.

The eye protection they had been supplied was so big that it fell off whenever they looked down — but they have now been provided with children’s eye goggles, which fit perfectly.

“We asked if they needed any PPE, and they said that although they've been supplied with visors and safety glasses, which is great, they were quite big,” Caroline said. “So when they leaned over babies, which midwives do a lot, the glasses would fall off, which is not ideal.

“So we rung around some local schools and were really happy to get some kind of donations of the safety glasses that kids use in science lessons. We took them to the midwives, they were just perfect and they gave me a little demonstration. ”

She said they had managed to source 400 pairs of safety glasses, which can be washed and reused, and are used by the 50 plus midwives who are on shift at any one time.

“It wasn't that they didn't have enough PPE,” she added, “it wasn't the right kind for the tasks they were doing, as in the fit of it. We know…that everything like this is designed with men in mind, and midwifery particularly is a profession where 98-99% of the workforce is female.”

Prospect

“Nothing seems to particularly have been designed with the female healthcare worker in mind,” the ICU doctor said, “which considering we make up the majority of the workforce is quite extraordinary.

“Going forward I hope that raising this issue means that once the NHS settles back to normal, that people who work in the procurement of uniforms and protective equipment for NHS workers start to pay a bit more heed to the differences between the genders in terms of physical size and dimensions because actually, this has really made me think about how the equipment that I'm provided to carry out my normal job hasn't always been designed with my gender and body type in mind.”

She said that even during the hospital’s normal day-to-day operations, equipment provided to women often does not adequately fit or protect them.

“Frequently the gowns that staff who work in theatres like surgeons, anaesthetists, nursing staff are asked to wear, they’re all batch bulk in the large and extra-large size so that they fit men, and it’s just assumed that it doesn't matter if it’s too big for women to wear,” she said.

“And there's lots of other items like that in the hospital [...] lead gowns for staff in X-ray departments to protect themselves, will often be bought in a large size and not tailor-made to body types of smaller people, particularly if they're temporary members of staff, which affects the student population, junior doctor population.

“I hope that when all this is over, perhaps this is an opportunity for us to reflect upon procuring equipment and uniforms that are tailor-made for the people wearing them.”

Prospect

Prospect union represents staff at the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Health and Safety Laboratory, who road test PPE for use by those on the frontline.

Prospect officers said that on a 2019 visit to the lab, HSE scientists showed them the procedures for testing the kit used in health care settings during communicable disease outbreaks, such as SARS and Ebola.

“They emphasised that PPE must keep the user safe both while they wear it, and during contamination and removal,” a Prospect spokesperson said.

“Using fluorescent ‘tracers’, they demonstrate how aerosol particulates can gather in bunched-up fabric — rolled sleeves and belted waists on overalls — only to become airborne again when the garment is removed.”

In Prospect's online survey, to which 1,175 members responded — 40% of them female — the union found that ill-fitting PPE is much more of an issue for women than men.

48.5% of female respondents said PPE trousers fit poorly, compared to 16.6% of male respondents, while 44.7% of female respondents and just 15.3% of male respondents said that their overalls fit poorly.

More than twice the number of women to men said they had problems with poorly fitting respiratory equipment — 15.7% of women and 7% of men had problems with face masks, and 21.5% of women reported ill-fitting eye protection, compared with 13.5% of men.

“Even with the best of intentions, we see employers pick up a box of 10 of the same shape of mask for their 10 employees when, in reality, they could need a different type for every worker,” said Jackie Western, a health and safety inspector in the construction industry and a Prospect representative.

“Having a narrow face, and wearing glasses, I had to fit-test more than twenty masks before I found the one that was right for me.”

Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of Prospect, said the current coronavirus crisis was highlighting what is a “perennial” issue of women having to wear PPE that has been designed for men.

She said: “Properly fitting PPE is essential both for comfort and effectiveness and it is generally women who are being overlooked. This is a perennial problem but for it to be persisting in the middle of the biggest acute health crisis in generations is appalling.

“Employers should engage with unions to ensure workers’ needs are properly addressed. The era of one-size-fits-all must end now.”


Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Hannah Al-Othman at hannah.al-othman@buzzfeed.com.

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