Urgent changes needed to PPE design and policies, research study suggests

Friday 29 January 2021

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Research by Coventry University suggests changes need to be made to personal protective equipment (PPE) and how it is used to help clinicians battling COVID-19.

PPE is required to reduce the risk of the NHS workforce contracting or transmitting COVID-19, and this – depending on the circumstances - may include face masks, face shields, gloves, goggles/glasses, long-sleeved gowns, and aprons.

The additional layers, extra weight, and restricted mobility caused by PPE can create added difficulties such as heat stress for those already working under the challenging conditions presented by the current pandemic.

Heat stress occurs when the body becomes unable to maintain a healthy internal temperature (approximately 37°C). This can impact the wearer’s performance, safety and well-being.

Dr Sarah Davey and her team from Coventry University’s Centre for Sport, Exercise and Life Sciences recently collaborated with University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW) NHS Trust to evaluate perceived levels of heat stress and the associated impacts on NHS workers, with the objective to inform future interventions designed to reduce the level of heat stress experienced going forward.

An anonymous survey was undertaken by NHS health care workers, asking them for feedback on a number of aspects of health and wellbeing. These included the number of heat-related illnesses or symptoms staff may have experienced whilst wearing PPE, and whether (and to what degree) physical and cognitive performance at work was impaired.

Of the 224 responses received, 92.9% of respondents reported experiencing heat-related illness symptoms, such as dizziness, fatigue, headaches, fainting and profuse sweating.

91.5% of the respondents felt that PPE made their job more difficult, while 76.2% reported that it impaired their physical performance at work. Staff revealed an increased difficulty in performing certain procedures, including CPR and conducting physiotherapy assessments. It was noted that this difficulty typically lengthens the time taken to complete a task, rather than preventing the task from being completed successfully or at all.

Dr Sarah Davey, a member of the Occupational and Environmental Physiology Group in the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Life Sciences, said:

Our findings suggest that modifications to the current design of PPE, or policies on the use of PPE, are urgently required.

Interventions such as incorporating specific work/rest patterns and/or some form of cooling strategy (either before or during a shift) could be impactful in reducing the level of heat stress that jeopardises the performance, safety and well-being of health care workers during pandemics.

The full findings of this research are now available to read online.

Find out more about the research happening at the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Life Sciences.