Is the safety of female firefighters being compromised?


Female firefighters are at risk of being exposed to occupational hazards to a greater extent than their male counterparts due to poorly fitting PPE. Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, and we especially want to pay our respects to all the female firefighters out there by raising an important question about work environment, health and safety.

PPE Gender Gap

With PPE designed for men, women are at a higher risk of injuring themselves or being exposed to dangerous particles. This includes jackets with loose cuffs and pants with wide openings that do not seal tightly around the boots, as well as helmets, masks, and SCBA presenting issues.

For example, in countries like the US, Canada, UK, Sweden, and Germany, female firefighters constitute approximately 5-10% of the workforce, and this percentage is growing. Therefore, women should be ensured they are equally protected as men when it comes to their PPE. Research indicates that 80% of female firefighters experience problems with poorly fitting PPE, which is four times more than men. Women also have a 33% higher risk of injury in their profession due to ill-fitting PPE.

Poor fit can have severe consequences, particularly at interface areas such as sleeve/glove, neck/hood, jacket/pants, and boot/pants, which are also at greater risk of exposure to fluids, chemicals, and heat. Smoke and particles can seep through gaps and spaces at the neck, waist, wrists, and ankles. This is especially concerning for female firefighters as female jackets are often smaller, shortened versions of jackets designed for men.

Not having PPE adapted for women in a male-dominated profession also creates a lower self-confidence in many contexts ...

Scaling down isn’t enough

In the United States, there are size tables for women, but they are inadequate for designing PPE, but some manufacturers have assumed they are good enough. However, the data is misleading because it is compiled from women in general in the US and not from women in the profession. Hsiao et al. (2014) published the first available national database for firefighters in the US, and the results showed that women in the fire service were, on average, 29 mm taller than their female counterparts in the general American population (Hsiao et al., 2014; NIOSH, 2015).

A recent study has also been compiled in the United Kingdom, which was conducted on approximately half of the female brigade in the UK, including body mass and hand grip strength, but half is still seen as too small a group to conduct the study. However, the study from the United Kingdom can still highlight the problem that PPE for women today is just a scaled-down version of men's PPE, which does not work. Women have different dimensions, and it is not enough to rely solely on height and weight. Therefore, more data is needed on this. In the problem lies also that it is common for women not to wear certain parts of their equipment because the equipment does not fit properly, even protective jackets and clothing were parts of the equipment that were not used in all situations due to poor fit. Many female firefighters have also alternated their clothes themselves to fit better.

Hindered to do their work

Design changes that could be implemented could solve many of the problems with mobility, comfort, and safety. Not having PPE adapted for women in a male-dominated profession also creates a lower self-confidence in many contexts, as women cannot be as effective in their work when hindered by their equipment. More research is of course needed in this area to create a reasonable work environment for women in the profession, and more studies are also needed on boots, gloves, helmets, SCBA, and masks in the fire service.

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