PPE for Women in Construction: The Right Fit

Originally published by Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

Imagine going to a worksite only to find that your hard hat is so large that it slips off your head, or that the fall arrest harness doesn’t fit your body correctly. As more women are entering construction, they are discovering that the personal protective equipment (PPE) available doesn’t always fit them. PPE is the last line of defense for a worker when it’s not possible to eliminate the workplace hazard, but if the personal protective equipment doesn’t fit properly it can’t do its job.

Numbers from the Canadian Construction Association reveal that the construction industry is one of Canada’s largest employers, employing 1 in 13 working-age individuals and over 1.4 million Canadians. Despite employing such a large percentage of Canada’s overall workforce, women remain dramatically under-represented in the industry, accounting for only 12 percent of the total workforce. Nearly 75 percent of the women tend to work in off-site occupations such as business administration, management, and sales. Still, that is almost 170,000 working at construction sites.

Construction has been an industry traditionally dominated by male workers and as a result much of the PPE developed and manufactured for this industry has been designed for men. This means that it often doesn’t fit women properly.

About personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE is worn by a worker to minimize exposure to specific occupational hazards. Some examples of PPE include respirators, gloves, aprons, fall protection, and overalls, as well as head, eye and foot protection. Using PPE is one element in a health and safety program that should use a variety of strategies to maintain a safe and healthy work environment. PPE does not reduce the hazard itself nor does it guarantee permanent or total protection.

PPE is the last step in the hierarchy of controls, making it the last level of protection between the worker and the hazards. Therefore, it is especially important that the correct PPE is selected, worn, and maintained.

An ill-fitting situation

Studies in the United Kingdom show that women working in hazardous industries such as construction often don’t have access to correctly fitting PPE and in some cases the PPE can be a nuisance and create a hazard rather than protect the worker.

Construction workers rely on PPE to protect against hazards at work. This includes equipment such as hard hats, reinforced boots and protective gloves to protect against physical injury. Not only do these items need to meet quality and safety standards in terms of material and design, proper fit is crucial to ensure that they are effective.

Because the construction workforce has traditionally been made up of mostly men, the production and procurement of PPE has been based on the needs of this group. This is reflected in the vast amount of PPE designed and standardized based on the male body. Equipment designed for men will often not fit women properly due to differences in body size, height and composition, and PPE cannot protect a worker from hazards if it does not fit.

In a 2014 study of female construction workers in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the majority of participants reported fit problems with many types of PPE, including gloves, harnesses, safety vests, work boots, and outerwear. The common observation was that the equipment provided was too large and required adjustments and modifications by the worker.

Not only is improperly fitting PPE detrimental to safety and productivity, it can also have a harmful affect the employer-employee relationship if the worker feels that aren’t being treated fairly or that their safety is being compromised.

The right to a safe workplace

All workers have a right to a safe workplace. PPE designed for the dimensions of an average male worker means that female workers may be forced to rely on gear that is too large or disproportioned. From headwear to footwear, ill-fitting PPE can cause safety hazards, reduced dexterity from oversized gloves, hard hats that fall off, baggy coveralls catching on equipment, and trips and falls because footwear or shoe covers are too large.

Employers need to consider female workers when purchasing PPE. Some manufacturers produce unisex PPE but even they may not fit a woman properly. Employers should look for distributors and suppliers that offer a full range of for both men and women. Providing PPE in this way can also accommodate the wide variety of different body types that exist in both male and female workers. By recognizing the physical differences between genders, employers can show support for female workers in construction by treating them fairly. This can also support the changing construction workplace culture as more women enter the industry.

Availability of PPE is improving as manufacturers are making PPE specifically for women. Also, safety and industry standards are being revised to reflect the needs of smaller-sized people by making standards less design-restrictive.

A commonly mentioned reason for the failure of a PPE program is the inability to overcome worker objections to wearing the equipment. When women don’t have properly fitting protective equipment they may be tempted to alter it, which should never be done, or may not be able to wear it at all. Finding the right sizes and getting the right fit of PPE for all workers is an important basic step to protecting them from harm, as well as a key component of any safety program.

Read the original article on CCOHS.ca