There is growing concern that standard personal protective equipment (PPE), which often has a unisex design, doesn’t always fit women properly.
PPE is essential for protecting frontline workers exposed to Covid-19.
The Department of Health said the kit is designed to protect “both genders”.
However, healthcare workers are saying that even the smallest sizes are too big for some women – who make up 77% of the NHS workforce, according to NHS digital figures from 2018.
If it is too big it can be less effective in providing a complete barrier to the virus.
“PPE is designed to be unisex and offer protection for both genders, although some products are available in different sizes to enable fit to both small and larger frames,” said the Department of Health, in a statement.
But the Royal College of Nursing has described “one-size-fits-all” personal protective equipment as “problematic” and “restrictive” when it can be worn for up to 12 hours during shifts. PPE includes gloves, masks, gowns and face shields.
“Nurses can find it very difficult to treat patients if this equipment is so uncomfortable it makes them hot and unwell,” said Rose Gallagher, professional lead for infection prevention and control.
Some female NHS workers have taken to social media to share photos of themselves wearing badly-fitting PPE.
‘What else comes in just two sizes?’
Dr Arghavan Salles, scholar-in-residence at Stanford University School of medicine, is currently working in the intensive care unit of a hospital in New York.
“There are only two sizes of the N95 mask, which is bizarre,” she said.
“What else comes in just two sizes? We’re suggesting that all faces on the planet are one of two sizes.”
Dr Salles said the smaller size fits her but is harder to find.
“Yesterday I was working with someone whose N95 strap broke – we couldn’t find her a new one [in the small size] so she had to go home,” she said.
Dr Salles said she was given two masks to last her two weeks. She added that the smallest-sized gloves and goggles are also often too large.
“My hands are a size 6, I’m wearing a 6.5 glove,” she said.
“The goggles have a really good [protective] seal but they just don’t fit.”
The growing call for more PPE specifically designed for women, sits against a backdrop of issues getting hold of PPE overall.
Author Caroline Criado-Perez researched the issue while writing her book Invisible Women, before the pandemic.
“The vast majority of personal protective equipment has been designed to fit the male body, so when you have for example ‘small’ – that’s actually small for men rather than small for women, or just average for women,” she said, in a New Scientist podcast.
“That’s particularly an acute problem in this context because the majority of healthcare workers are female and they get told things like, ‘your face is a weird shape’ – well it’s not a weird shape, it’s a female shape.”
Former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood issued a statement calling on the Welsh government to source better PPE kit for women.
She described it as “a scandal within the scandal” of general PPE availability.
“We are asking women to put their lives on the line in the NHS and in care settings for the good of society and we cannot even provide them with PPE – or when we do, it is not the right size,” she said.
The Women’s Equality Party tweeted that it was “utterly shameful” that women were wearing kit designed to fit men.
In a report published in 2017, trade union association the TUC noted that “most PPE is based on the sizes and characteristics of male populations from certain countries in Europe and the United States”.
“As a result, most women, and also many men, experience problems finding suitable and comfortable PPE because they do not conform to this standard male worker model,” it said.
It’s an issue that is being noted by consumers as well: political journalist Marie Le Conte tweeted her frustration at having to search specifically for women’s masks “because all the ‘standard’ ones I bought online a few weeks ago are just very clearly too big for my face”, she said.