by Sally Colby

Women are important players in agriculture, and often perform tasks that require personal protective equipment (PPE). However, most PPE is sized for men, which means women are often forced to wear bulky, oversized clothing.

Charlotte Halverson, RN, clinical director, AgriSafe Network, said eliminating hazards in the ag workplace is the goal, and if hazards cannot be eliminated, the next goal is to isolate or protect people.

“In the agricultural arena, we know this is sometimes almost impossible,” said Halverson. “We are looking at ‘Can we change the way people work?’ That may be anything from how they dress for the work environment, how they use their bodies or what type of protective equipment they can use.”

Halverson has seen more PPE options for women recently, but still not as much as is available for men. “Getting protective equipment to fit properly and to be comfortable takes effort,” she said. “One of the concerns is that oversized PPE can get in the way, especially Tyvek® suits used for chemical applications.” If sleeves or pants are too long or the suit is too wide, it can easily get caught in equipment or lead to a trip and fall.

Women of child-bearing age should make extra efforts obtain appropriate PPE. “We know chemicals can impact pregnancy and infants,” said Halverson. “We also know that as pregnancy goes on, there’s a buildup of fluid around the nerves in hands and feet, particularly in the wrists and hands with carpal tunnel symptoms. As pregnancy progresses, center of gravity changes and that has an impact on walking and moving. The potential for edema in legs and feet can change the way we move.”

Hearing protection is a critical aspect of working in ag. Halverson said years ago, farmers accepted hearing loss as part of the business of farming. But once hearing is gone, it’s gone, so it’s worth investing in appropriate PPE to protect hearing. Women often have smaller faces and features so fit for hearing protection is critical.

Constant exposure to tractors and combines and working with confined animals such as pigs can lead to hearing loss. Halverson explained the difference between decibels and hertz. Both are measures for hearing protection: decibels measure the loudness, while hertz is the frequency – the number of sound vibrations per second. A high of 85 decibels is considered the “safe” level, but much of agriculture involves much higher decibels. If a farm business falls under OSHA regulations, workers who are exposed to more than 85 decibels must be supplied with hearing protection.

“Taking breaks instead of running equipment full-on for hours can help give the ears a rest, as well as the rest of the body,” said Halverson. “We recommend people have a baseline hearing test so as exposure changes and we get older, we can see the changes over the years and what to do about it.”

Halverson said if someone purchases proper hearing protection, they should store it where it can be easily accessed. “Make it convenient,” she said. “Having one set of ear plugs doesn’t work because they may be acres away and not where we need them right away.” Workers also have to find the type of hearing protection that fits and works best for them.

There are many options for hearing protection, including inexpensive plugs that are twisted and inserted. “Pre-molded have stems on the end to hold onto to avoid getting grease or dirt in the ear,” said Halverson. “Canal caps are another option, useful when hearing protection is frequently taken on and off. Earmuffs work for many and provide excellent protection if fitted and worn properly.” It’s important to realize that wearing earmuffs over ear plugs does not provide double protection. At best, the combination provides protection of about five to 10 extra decibels.

Although eye protection should top the list of essential PPE, it’s often thought about least. One risk for eye damage is handling chemicals and pesticides, which can result in splashes or dust in the eyes. Windy days can cause liquids and powders to fly around, but moving equipment without wind can also present a hazard to the operator and those in the vicinity. Safety glasses must conform to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards for the particular task, and the ANSI rating must be located on the glasses. Halverson said safety glasses are only suitable for eye protection if they have an ANSI rating.

“Be aware of where and how safety glasses fit,” said Halverson. “The frame should fit comfortably, and as close to the face as possible.” Safety glasses should come with side protection or the wearer can add slip-on side shields. Safety glasses are available in sunglasses and with prescriptions.

A variety of goggles are available for chemical protection. “Goggles can be ventilated or not,” said Halverson. “If you’re handling chemicals, especially working with chemicals with vapor, goggles should have no ventilation at all. They are sealed, so they’re only worn for short periods of time.”

Bump caps and hard hats are sometimes necessary for farm work. A hard hat protects against what might fall from around the workspace. A bump cap, which looks much like a ball cap, has a thinner protective shell and protects against smaller impacts (like bumping into stationary objects).

Women should look for protective clothing that fits properly and isn’t baggy or too long. “Any chemicals you buy have specific instructions about what type of protective equipment to wear,” said Halverson. “One of the terms is ‘chemical resistant,’ which means there is no measurable movement of the pesticide through the material from the exterior to the clothing close to the body.” Protective clothing should be worn for the least amount of time possible to avoid dehydration and overheating.

Gloves can present a challenge for women, although more options are available than in the past. “If you don’t have gloves that fit properly, it can cause hand fatigue,” said Halverson. “You can spend as much time trying to keep the glove on as you are doing the work, and your hands get really tired over a period of time.” To size gloves properly, wrap a tape measure around the palm, just below the knuckles, not including the thumb. Round up to the nearest half inch to determine glove size.

Cotton gloves can help protect against dust, dirt and abrasions but are not suitable when working with rough or sharp materials. Blue nitrile gloves are available in different sizes that fit women’s hands properly and are usually used for milking cows. Green nitrile gloves are a bit heavier and can be cuffed to protect from chemical exposure.

Farm work requires sturdy, protective footwear, and fortunately, women are usually able to find suitable footwear. Halverson said it’s important to check the soles of footwear for wear, and advises against wearing boots with a heel for general farm work.