Female frontline workers are having issues with badly-fitting PPE

The coronavirus has brought attention to the shortage of PPE in the UK, but there are other issues with protective equipment.

One of the more contentious issues surrounding the COVID-19 crisis is that of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Most of the controversy so far has centered on the shortage of equipment, which includes surgical gowns and gloves – essential for frontline workers dealing with patients who have the coronavirus.

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick, promised that 84 tonnes of PPE would arrive from Turkey on Sunday into the UK, though this has reportedly been delayed. So far, there have been over 170,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 26,000 deaths in the UK.

However, a new problem has emerged – that PPE is not designed with female frontline workers in mind and that it does not fit them properly.

“So uncomfortable it bruises the skin”

Dr Helen Fidler, the deputy chair of the British Medical Association told The Independent: “We are aware that in the current crisis, female doctors and other NHS staff are having issues with filtering face-piece (FFP) masks and other PPE not being available in smaller sizes as they tend to be designed to the size and shape of male bodies.”

Fidler noted that 75% of NHS workers are female and adding that “correctly fitted PPE is essential for the protection of staff and patients, and smaller sizes need to be made available urgently.”

Rose Gallagher, from the Royal College of Nursing, also said: “One-size-fits-all protective equipment has been a problem for frontline healthcare workers who have to wear this specialist life-saving equipment for up to 12 hours at a time.

“Nurses can find it very difficult to deliver care to patients if this equipment is so uncomfortable it bruises the skin and makes them feel hot and unwell.”

Another problem is that doctors and nurses frequently need to change in and out of PPE, and fit issues makes this process difficult.

“Swamped in oversized gowns”

Jo Barnard, founder of product design studio Morrama, tells Design Week that a more considered design process is required to ensure the safety of women on the front line.

She explains that “human measurements are available in a form called anthropometric data”. This data provides a sizing system which is based on percentiles. Usually designers work between the fifth and 95th percentiles, which is where the majority of the population lies, according to Barnard.

As Barnard explains: “The height of a door frame would be considered based on the upper end (95th percentile) to ensure the vast majority of people could walk comfortably underneath it. For the height of a letterbox that even the shortest person must be able to reach, you would take measurements from the lower percentile. Putting all the data together to decide on the height of a door frame doesn’t much matter.”

However, the consequences can clearly be more “dangerous” when it comes to PPE, where the “fit is imperative to performance”. Barnard likens it to clothing, saying: “It’s hard enough to know what size to choose from when faced with S, M, L, XL T-shirt sizes so imagine a one-size-fits-all mask or protective gown.”

“Significant logistical issue”

During the ongoing crisis, it would be a “significant logistical issue” to make multiple sizes, which means that staff are having to adjust the PPE, often with dangerous consequences. Barnard returns to the door frame analogy, saying that sizes start from the highest end of the spectrum, meaning that the PPE has to be “tightened, folded, rolled up to XS”.

She adds: “The small percentage of NHS staff, carers and key workers who are 6ft rugby players are good to go, while the 5ft female is swamped in an oversized gown and can barely see.”

“Another example of a poor representation of female consumers within design teams”

While the problem of badly-fitting PPE highlights the issue, the consequences of a lack of women in design is not new.

“Designers serve a population that is 50-50 in gender, yet it is very common to have a team of all male designers creating products that are either unisex or even for a female consumer base,” Barnard says. “Why would you have a team of men design a female health product, such as a bra or a vibrator, without a woman’s input?”

She adds: “The case of PPE is yet another example of a poor representation of female consumers within design teams and – during a time where our front line workers are all at risk – is putting our key workers in further, unnecessary danger that could have been avoided with some female input.”

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