Dangerous by design: when the ‘average man’ isn’t good enough

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Seatbelts, body armour, crash test dummies and even spacesuits; recently it has been realised just how dangerous these things can be to many people. Why? They’re designed around traditionally male bodies, leaving women’s health at risk.

For example, a recent paper focusing on body armour for female troops in the US army found that the ill-fitting protection encumbers movement, is uncomfortable to wear, and even leaves gaps which enemies can grab onto in hand-to-hand combat. The issue in designing new armour lies in the curves in the plates needed to better fit female troops. Lt. Col. Fran Lozano explained to the Christian Science Monitor that the more curves there are in the plates, the heavier they must be, as well as decreasing their protective qualities. Work is apparently being carried out to investigate new compounds which would offer the right mix of properties.

NASA has similarly announced new spacesuit designs that overcome the problem they were having with size. In the past, spacewalks from the ISS had to be cancelled due to there not being enough small size spacesuits for the female astronauts. The new suits are intended to be universal, with just some modification of padding needed to adapt them to astronauts of all sizes. This will be invaluable as NASA begins its push for more manned missions, first to the Moon and then to Mars. As well as offering a better fit, the suits come with other improvements such as improved mobility, allowing astronauts to lift objects (quite useful), and easier embarking/disembarking.

These issues extend into everyday lives. With many safety products relying on data gathered from years ago, a gender data-gap has opened up. Even things like standards for office temperatures have been based on the average temperature of males, leaving young women (with a lower metabolic rate) in offices up to 5°C too cold. Crash test dummies based on the female body have only been used in the US since 2011. In the EU, there is one test where a female dummy is required to be used, but the dummy is only tested in the passenger seat. This leads to design choices which not only don’t do enough to protect women in case of an accident but can actively cause harm; women are 17% more likely to be killed in a car crash.

It is clear what is needed: more data. Regulatory bodies should ensure that both men and women are accounted for during tests, giving designers and engineers a better understanding of how their designs will affect all of the people using them, not just half.

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Fergus Elliott

Science Editor | 19-20

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