Last reviewed 26 November 2013

The availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) is a critical component in ensuring workplace health and safety. The phrase “one size fits all” is certainly one that could not be easily applied to PPE. Heather Mawhinney reports.


Lack of adequate PPE can create a barrier to employment equality for women. Badly fitting PPE can also mean women in non-traditional roles may be hindered in efficiently performing their work tasks. In many work environments, women “make do” with PPE that has been designed for men, due to a combination of factors including the desire not to attract attention, and the lack of availability of correctly sized and proportioned items.

The laboratory environment

A laboratory is a room or area in a building equipped with apparatus, equipment, chemicals, and/or test animals. Working in a laboratory invariably involves various chemical, physical and biological hazards. These hazards vary from lab to lab, but all must be addressed via risk assessment. Often, one of the measures taken to protect the health and safety of laboratory workers, albeit as a last resort, is the provision of PPE.

What the law says

PPE is defined in the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (as amended) as “all equipment (including clothing affording protection against the weather), which is intended to be worn or held by a person at work, and which protects him against one or more risks to his health and safety”.

It is considered that PPE is the last line of defence against workplace hazards and, where possible, these should be preferentially eliminated or controlled in other ways. However, PPE will still be required in many work situations, for example, when technology is not available, when the controls are inadequate, while controls are being upgraded/implemented, and during emergencies.

PPE includes safety footwear. Additional regulations exist that have specific requirements for the provision, maintenance and use of PPE, and that are relevant to the laboratory. These include the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002.

The legislation states that, where PPE is used: it must be maintained in an efficient working order and in a good state of repair; be compatible with other PPE; be stored in a designated, suitable area; and carry a CE mark. All PPE should be provided in conjunction with appropriate information, instruction and training for the wearer.

Anthropometry of feet

Anthropometry looks at the human body and uses measurements to determine similarities and differences among individuals and groups. Anthropometric tables clearly show that women are not small men. Indeed, they have a variety of differences, including the feet, body, hands and head, and this diversity impacts PPE.

Women's feet are, on average, smaller and narrower; further differences exist in foot structure, muscle strength and ligament laxity. If, for example, a manufacturer simply reduces the pattern size of the average man's footwear to create a woman's shoe, the length may be correct, but the shoe would be too wide. Therefore, all the aforementioned intrinsic physical factors should be considered during safety footwear design.

It is important to recognise that ill-fitting PPE offers no protection, and indeed can jeopardise the health and safety of female workers and their co-workers. Moreover, when PPE does not fit properly or is difficult to wear, it is often avoided, regardless of the risk involved.

Women's footwear is the one piece of PPE that has been proven to be least protective. Many women complain that their work shoes/boots are too big or excessively loose. One of the most common consequences of this is tripping; often happening when climbing stairs, ladders, or walking. Similarly, if steel toe boots are too big, the steel box in the toe is of no protection.

Safety footwear for laboratory environments

Many different types of hazard exist in the laboratory workplace. These must be assessed to ensure the chosen PPE is suitable to protect against the hazard, and allows the job or task to be carried out.

Safety footwear is designed to protect against foot injury. Some of the most common causes include crushing, impact and puncture. Certain work environments impose additional hazards that a worker must be protected against. These include chemicals, electricity (static or live), extreme weather conditions, and variable surface conditions.

Where safety footwear is needed, it must be of a design, construction, and material appropriate to the protection required. Shoes with non-slip soles should be worn in laboratories. Laboratory workers who work with or near chemical hazards must not wear open-toed shoes and sandals. Some special circumstances require particular PPE and the following common situations are worthy of note.

  • Workers (including cleaners) performing spills clean-up require chemical-resistant footwear.

  • Workers who need to stand for long periods while working, need shoes that provide enough cushioning and support for their feet.

  • Workers who frequently change gas cylinders are at increased risk of injury from cylinders falling on their toes, and hard-toed shoes are recommended for this task.

Factors to consider when choosing safety footwear

Footwear for females in a laboratory environment should be chosen to ensure proper fit, comfort and necessary protection. When selecting female footwear, it may be advantageous to seek advice from suppliers, manufacturers or health and safety experts. It is good practice to ensure that PPE is CE marked, and is selected, used and maintained in accordance with BS 7184:2001 (Selection, Use and Maintenance of Chemical Protective Clothing).

The following is also important.

  • Make sure that the footwear is appropriate to the hazards of the job.

  • Allow workers to try on new footwear before it is selected for procurement.

  • Check the distance between toe and the toe of the shoe/boot, as it is impossible to feel the end of the toe while wearing a steel cap.

  • Leave a small amount of room for swelling (<0.5cm), especially if the worker stands or walks a lot within the laboratory building.

  • Make sure the boot/shoe fits well when laced or buckled.

  • Choose footwear that is as lightweight as possible, although most safety footwear by its nature is generally heavier than regular footwear.