A high-profile snafu in space has brought new focus on personal protective equipment (PPE) and the obligation of employers to make sure that it fits all the members of an increasingly diverse workforce who are expected to wear it.
This was brought home most vividly in late March when NASA was forced to cancel the first-ever space walk by two women at the International Space Station because only one of the appropriate space suits on board would properly fit a woman.
Astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch had been slated to make the historic walk together in space, but Koch had to pair off with male astronaut Nick Hague and the chance for the two women to make history was lost. Hague and McClain also had completed a spacewalk earlier in March, but that was not enough to blunt some of the public accusations that McLain had been cut from the later spacewalk because she is a lesbian.
According to NASA, the astronauts trained with various sized spacesuits, but the effect of microgravity changed the sizing preferences once in space. An ill-fitting spacesuit would make the job more difficult, and also, as you might well imagine, could present safety concerns.
NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz explained that spacesuits come in different sizes and configurations. “Working in a pressurized spacesuit requires physical strength and endurance, and it is essential that the spacesuit fits as well as possible,” she revealed. “An optimally fitted spacesuit improves an astronaut’s ability to accomplish the tasks.”
She explained, “We do our best to anticipate the spacesuit sizes that each astronaut will need, based on the spacesuit size they wore in training on the ground, and in some cases astronauts train in multiple sizes. However, the sizing needs of crew members may change when they are in orbit, in response to the changes living in microgravity can bring about in a body.”
That did nothing to blunt the criticism. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Make another suit,” which failed to recognize the difficulty of making modifications to the suit in the space station without taking needed time away from other essential missions assigned to the crew.
Other outraged critics also seemed to be unaware of some of the subtleties and complexities inherent in such a highly technical and complex operating environment. McClain, who is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a decorated combat pilot and engineer, said it was her decision not to participate in the spacewalk. “This decision was based on my recommendation,” she declared. “Leaders must make tough calls, and I am fortunate to work with a team who trusts my judgement.”
Down Here on Earth
No sooner did the space station incident hit newspaper headlines and network news than social media erupted with the anger of many women who said they had faced similar issues they felt amounted to discrimination against women employees by ignorant or deliberately callous employers. They cited incidents when equipment was so ill-fitting that it created dangers or simply made it extremely difficult to accomplish the tasks expected of them.
The ill-fitting equipment and clothing they described included bullet-proof vests, oversized work boots, hazmat suits, gloves and PPE equipment at construction sites—all designed to be worn only by an average-sized man. Adding to their anger was the fact that some employers regarded different-sized equipment for women as something that was not their responsibility and that in many cases the woman was expected to purchase it herself.
Your business may not operate in outer space, but under federal law employers are required to consider these issues when determining required PPE for their workplaces, and must make sure that the PPE properly fits the employee to ensure it provides the intended protection, says attorney Todd Logsdon of law firm Fisher Phillips.
“A diverse workforce can include employees of various sizes,” he adds. “An employer must not only ensure it has the proper PPE for the hazards of the workplace, but also that the PPE fits each of the employees who may need to use it.” This individual employer responsibility is recognized and written into federal workplace safety law and regulations, Logsdon points out.
To begin with, employers are required to conduct an assessment of the workplace to determine what hazards are present that necessitate the use of PPE. Then the employer must select the appropriate PPE to address the hazards, communicate that decision to the affected employees, and “select PPE that properly fits each affected employee,” federal regulations state.
Logsdon notes, “The reasons for having properly-sized PPE are obvious. Gloves that are too big may make it difficult for employees to grip or manipulate tools; chemical boots that are too big could create a trip hazard, and respirators that are too big will not have the proper seal to prevent contaminants from entering the facemask.”
Employers also should keep in mind that the employer is required to train the affected employees on when PPE is necessary, how to don, doff, adjust and wear the PPE, the limitations of the PPE, as well as the proper care and maintenance of the PPE, Logsdon warns.
In general, employers must provide the required PPE at no cost to the employee with a few exceptions. For example, the employer is not required to pay for general, non-specialty safety footwear and prescription eyewear that the employer allows workers to wear off-site.
Finally, the employer must remember to document and “certify” the hazard assessment, Logsdon stresses. Not doing so has proven costly for many employers. “Failing to be able to produce the certified hazard assessment is a common citation by OSHA.”