This is how menstruation affects your personal protective equipment

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Research has shown that, on average, 64% of women working as engineers need different personal protective equipment during their menstrual cycles. Among younger women, this percentage is even 98 to 100%. This isn’t surprising, as the body changes during the monthly cycle.

But what exactly are these needs and how can an employer accommodate them? In this article, I discuss the research and menstrual expert Paula Kragten explains how we can tackle this problem.

This is how menstruation affects your personal protective equipment
Photo: ThisisEngineering – Unsplash

Research into Personal Protective Equipment

In April 2024, the Women’s Engineering Society published a report on the experiences of women with personal protective equipment (PPE). The findings of the British network organization, focused on female engineers, were not very promising. Many women do not receive suitable, well-fitting PPE at work. This didn’t surprise me. Several research reports have shown that women receive inferior protective equipment compared to men at work. I recently wrote an article about this.

What struck me the most is that this problem becomes even more significant during menstruation.

This is how menstruation affects your personal protective equipment

The researchers surveyed 409 female engineers aged 18 to 74 about their experiences. It turns out that especially women up to 44 years old consider their menstrual cycle when choosing PPE.

 

This is how menstruation affects your personal protective equipment

The research shows that visiting the toilet during menstruation is particularly challenging for those who wear PPE. Unlike men, women often have to remove most of both their protective clothing and PPE.

Designers of women’s restrooms don’t seem to have considered this. There is often little space for women to change, making the process lengthy. And once they’re seated, they also need to change their menstrual products.

You might think this is just part of the process, but in practice, it causes a lot of irritation among male colleagues. They find it unfair that women take much longer for their bathroom breaks. As a result, women receive complaints and try to avoid bathroom visits. This is, of course, difficult during menstruation, but by drinking less, they attempt to minimize the visits. While staying hydrated is crucial.

 

Light colors and a lack of pockets

Light-colored protective gear is also a significant issue for many respondents. Wearing a white overall is not a problem for men but can cause a lot of stress for women. No one wants to leak during menstruation, especially not in a way that everyone can see. Unfortunately, for women working in male-dominated environments, it is difficult to bring this up. Those who did bring it up were often not taken seriously by their male supervisors, according to the research. The topic proved too taboo to discuss.

To remain on the topic of taboos, displaying menstrual products is a big no-no in such environments. Unfortunately, protective clothing designed for women often lacks pockets. This means they have to carry their bags when they go to the toilet, making them stand out even more.

 

The dangers of leakage fear 

According to Paula Kragten, publisher of the menstrual magazine Period! and author of Mooi rood is niet lelijk, these situations are hazardous for health.

“Leakage is one of the biggest fears for many women at work. So they do everything to prevent this. If you also receive complaints for taking longer in the bathroom, women often opt for larger tampons or pads. This means they don’t have to change as often. But what many women don’t know is that this is bad for vaginal health.

Tampons and pads are absorbent products. When the absorbency is too high, it can dry out the vaginal mucosa. The result is that you’re more likely to experience irritation and infections. It is advised to change pads and tampons regularly, preferably every four hours. Tampons should never be worn for more than eight hours due to the risk of TSS, also known as tampon disease.”

 

Employers need to act

According to Kragten, employers have a significant responsibility to take this topic seriously.

“It pays to put menstruation on the work agenda. Many women have no choice but to call in sick due to menstrual problems. It doesn’t help the discussion if there is a taboo around menstruation. In more and more countries, there is attention to the impact of menstruation on absenteeism and productivity. In Canada and Scotland, it is now legally required to provide free menstrual products in public buildings such as schools and government offices. Spain has introduced menstrual leave.

There are also good developments in the Netherlands. For example, unions like FNV and CNV are working to make collective labor agreements (CAOs) menstrual-friendly. Small adjustments can have a big impact. Think of a non-gender-neutral toilet with a sink in the same, lockable space. This way, women can easily change their menstrual cups or clean themselves if they leak.

Discussions are also being held about mandatory white pants. Why can’t they wear another color? And about the possibility of going to the toilet when needed. Once such matters are included in a CAO, it becomes easier to address menstrual issues with the employer.”

 

Talk about menstruation

Many measures can be taken, but ultimately it all comes down to shame. Although half of the world’s population menstruates for a significant part of their lives, it remains a taboo subject. And we need to change that. Therefore, Kragten advises employers to be mindful of their language. In environments where jokes are made about menstruation, women will feel less comfortable speaking up. Asking for a larger restroom, stating a preference for non-white clothing, and taking more time in the bathroom without problems are all things that should be discussed with your employer.

Not every employer can solve these problems immediately, but a listening ear and understanding are the first steps. And for those who prefer to stick their heads in the sand, don’t complain if you face a staff shortage. Because if you can’t show understanding for half of the people, you can’t expect them to want to work for you.

Best regards,

Aileen

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