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Personal Protective Equipment standards must respond to women’s needs to ensure the ‎safety of all frontline 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

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.

As production of PPE is being ramped up, it is our responsibility to ensure that these products are suitable for all and provide protection and safety for all workers alike. 

This situation affects not only medical equipment but many other products that we use in our daily lives. This must change. Standards must respond to the differentiated needs of women and men.

Under the umbrella of the UNECE “Gender-responsive Standards Declaration”, standards bodies work together to make standards – like those on filtering masks, medical gloves and protective clothing – gender responsive. Some 65 standards bodies have already formally signed the Declaration, taking concrete commitments for action.

Signatories, such as CEN-CENELEC, an organization responsible for European standardization in the area of electrical engineering, are developing harmonised standards which encourage manufacturers to increase and diversify the production of medical equipment and personal protective equipment.

However, much more remains to be done. UN Women and UNECE therefore encourage all standards bodies of the UNECE region and beyond to sign the Declaration and to participate in the review of the existing standards development process, identify shortcomings and propose a way forward.

Our organizations are guided by the belief that to achieve gender equality for transformative change, we must address the inclusion gap. This means delivering gender-responsive standards, policies, and governance systems, which include and work for all.

Until we address these systemic issues, gender inequality will hold us back – in the current times of crisis and for sustainable development.

We count on your collaboration.