Op-ed: Personal Protective Equipment standards must respond to women’s needs to ensure the safety of all front line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

By UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova and UN Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia Alia El-Yassir

Date: Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Since the global outbreak of COVID-19, essential workers have been risking their lives in order to protect ours. No expense should be spared to ensure the availability and efficacy of personal protective equipment (PPE) as a fundamental pre-requisite to prevent exposure to COVID-19. Currently, this equipment is not produced in accordance with the differentiated needs of women and men.

Yet roughly 70 per cent of the global healthcare workforce are women, according to an analysis of 104 countries conducted by the World Health Organization. Women therefore bear the brunt of the risks for our collective wellbeing. There are still few statistics as to the toll this is taking on women’s health. In Spain, infection cases of COVID-19 among health personnel appear significantly higher among women than among men (75.5% vs 24.5%) according to the latest figures. In Italy, 69% of women health-care workers have been infected with COVID-19 compared to 31% of men.

Even though women healthcare workers are at greater risk, we’re falling short of adequately protecting them. Masks and other protective equipment designed and sized for men leave women at greater risk of exposure.

PPE, like all products, is produced in compliance with standards – which take the form of technical guidelines or definitions – and developed by technical committees convened under the umbrella of standards organizations. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, a number of standards bodies, including International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ASTM International, the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), have supported the response by providing open access to many standards related to health and human wellbeing – including those for PPE.

As the pandemic has unfolded, it has become apparent that PPE does not protect all workers equally. This is because – quite often – these specifications are drawn up on the basis of the male body, which all too often is taken as the reference for the human population as a whole. As a result, for example, protective goggles may not be the right size or shape for many women.

Read full op-ed on UN Women's regional website for Europe and Central Asia