Men and women come in all different shapes and sizes. So does personal protective equipment (PPE), yet too often, workers find themselves wearing ill-fitting protective gear that may be, at best, uncomfortable and at worst, dangerous.

The International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) is reminding employers that properly fitting PPE is vital to workplace safety. Why do so many workers end up in protective garments that don’t fit them? The problem, according to the ISEA, is that some employers find it easier to order one or two common sizes in bulk — often Large or XL — without regard for physical variations in employees.

“Manufacturers already make PPE in varied sizes,” said ISEA President Charles D. Johnson. “Employers need to be proactive and accountable with regard to PPE. Ordering PPE is not merely a box to check off on a to-do list — it’s a vital step in saving lives preventing injuries, and creating a culture of worker safety.”

Some employers – particularly in construction - also tend to ignore the need for PPE sizes that fit women. With women representing approximately 9% of the construction workforce, according to the National Association of Women in Construction, proper fit is an issue affecting a significant number of workers.

ISEA says it is partnering with groups including the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) and its common interest group Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) to help educate employers and other stakeholders about the need to provide PPE in a range of sizes.

“Suppliers and distributors play a role in education and pricing structure by making the equipment available, affordable, and with shipping and delivery speeds that meet the demands of construction,” adds Ferri, who is also ASSP Northwest Chapter president-elect and ASSP WISE administrator. “The industry is realizing that women’s PPE fit isn’t just about smaller sizes available in pink. When women’s unique fit needs are considered and addressed, it benefits the entire workforce by ensuring a range of sizes are available.”

While OSHA regulations pertaining to general industry require employers to select PPE that properly fits each affected employee (General Requirements 1910.132(d)(1)(iii)), OSHA regs do not specifically address this issue as it applies to the construction industry.

This discrepancy in OSHA’s regulations allows some construction-industry employers to tell workers with ill-fitting PPE to “make it work.”

Johnson said OSHA needs to address this regulatory gap and require employers in construction to provide properly fitting PPE to every employee.

Not only does PPE need to conform to their body dimensions to be effective – poorly fitting PPE can itself be a safety hazard. If it’s too loose, it could get caught in machinery and cause injury. Too tight PPE could be uncomfortable, which discourages its use.

“PPE fit should be communicated in a way that a worker can understand their size, and the employer must make the effort to purchase the sizes needed, no matter the quantity,” says Abby Ferri, CSP, Vice President of the National Construction Practice of the Minneapolis-based insurance broker Hays Companies. “Workers of any gender should not be in a position to modify their gear or compromise safety by wearing ill-fitting PPE.”