Debbie Janson, senior lecturer at the University of Bath’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been recognised as one of the top 50 women in engineering in the UK for her work on improving personal protective equipment for women.

The Women’s Engineering Society award recognises her research on improving safety footwear for women, and her study of gender and sex differences in PPE and design inadequacies across the PPE industry, an area she was motivated to research after facing these issues in her 20-year career in industry.

“Frustrated by the ill-fitting safety footwear I was made to wear I returned to the University of Bath in 2018 determined to try to resolve these critical problems. PPE is traditionally designed around a standard European or U.S. man’s form. This poses a lot of problems, not only for women, but for men who are not of average build – we all have different face and body shapes,” Janson said.

Janson said the issue of ill-fitting PPE had been brought into sharp focus by the Covid pandemic, particularly as women account for 70% of all NHS staff in the UK and 89% of nurses on the front line.

“Not only are there shortages of PPE, but when the PPE is supplied people are struggling to get it to actually fit. Often they have to overtighten the PPE, causing bruising and discomfort, or it’s hindering their ability to do their job properly because they are struggling with oversize gowns or aprons,” she said.

Janson acknowledged the challenges of designing and supplying PPE but said the industry needed to implement rapid change.

“We have to have a baseline – but it has always been based on a man. Fortunately women are becoming more prepared to stand up and say, their PPE is uncomfortable or obstructive and I hope management and suppliers will respond to this,” Janson said.

Janson said she was delighted to have been recognised by the Women in Engineering Society award and hoped it may inspire young women to enter the engineering sector.

“I was the first in my family to go to university and I know how important role models are for young people. I am humbled to have been named alongside the top 50 women in engineering in 2021 and hope it may bring a higher profile to this serious issue,” she said.