More Inclusive PPE for Women Starts With Finding the Right Fit

More Inclusive PPE for Women Starts With Finding the Right Fit

Everyone deserves to feel safe on the job.

It is no secret that the United States is facing a skilled trade shortage. According to research from the National Center for Construction Education and Research, approximately 41 percent of the current construction workforce will retire by 20311. As this essential segment of workers heads into retirement years, the discussion of growing the skilled trade workforce has taken center stage.  

Women, in particular, play a vital role in the future of the trades. Although the skilled trades remain a male-dominated field, recent years have seen a growing number of women entering this workforce. According to Labor Force Statistics, the amount of women in construction has steadily increased since 2012. Between 2019 and 2020, the share of women grew by about 0.6 percent and in 2021, women now make up 11 percent of the construction workforce. 

While this is encouraging progress, one of the most critical areas women in construction still remain underserved in is the accessibility to safety gear. As more and more women enter the workforce, the disparities they encounter have become more apparent. Generations of tradeswomen know all too well the struggles of dealing with personal protective equipment (PPE) that was designed for the frame of a man including poorly fitting safety boots as well as gloves, belts, harnesses, respirators and more. 

Everyone deserves to feel safe on the job site and this segment of workers absolutely requires PPE built for their unique anatomy. As more women enter the skilled trades workforce, there is an increased demand for better fitting safety gear built for the wearer. Luckily, many of today’s manufacturers are meeting that demand, developing better fitting PPE. Laying the right foundation for a safe working environment often begins with safety footwear, and many times, that starts with the best fit.  

PPE is Not One-Size-Fits-All  

While the lack of inclusivity as it pertains to women workers may not be intentional, it has been pervasive throughout the industry until recently. Because the various trade industries have historically been dominated by men, it is no surprise that a majority of PPE has been tailored to this demographic.  

While safety on the job site is paramount, the feedback received from many tradeswomen is that the PPE available to them is not only uncomfortable, but also is not even designed for their sizes or body types. In the past, much of the PPE available on the market was designed for men and simply “shrunk down” to smaller sizes for women. This forced tradeswomen to settle for workarounds such as adjusting or modifying gear or finding their male size equivalent to find the closest fit possible. “Close-enough” should not be acceptable when it comes to gear designed to protect, in part, based on proper fit.  

Finding the Right Fit  

The differences between men’s and women’s feet include bone structure, size, width and shape. In the case of safety footwear, women’s feet tend to be smaller and their bones and tendons are shaped differently. This impacts how they move, walk, stand and distribute weight. These differences require unique footwear for both men and women.  

Unfortunately, in the past, women were often limited to the smallest shoe size they could find for men’s safety boots or had very limited inventory to choose from. Without properly fitting footwear, the safety and comfort of tradeswomen can be compromised. The hazards of poorly fitting footwear can range from causing hot spots, blisters and abrasions to unnecessary bulk which could cause serious workplace accidents such as slips, trips or falls.  

Women in the market for new PPE should seek out brands that design and fit products for the biomechanics of their bodies. At my company, we bring real tradeswomen into the product development process. Our tradeswomen-tested program enlists the feedback of tradeswomen in a variety of professions on the fit and performance of our products from initial conception to product release, which we incorporate to improve future designs.  

It should also be noted that women’s PPE is no less capable or durable than men’s when it comes to jobsite performance. The differences in PPE for men and women often has more to do with design and fit rather than materials or the quality of construction.  

A New Class of Safety Footwear 

Advances in safety, performance and fit enhancements in work footwear has ushered in a new generation in work footwear. And, with brands beginning to focus product development on its women’s offerings, today’s women’s boots are built to be just as tough as their male counterparts.  

One example of this can be seen through the evolution of materials used in protective toe caps. The latest safety cap to hit the market are carbon-fiber toes, which are 15 percent lighter than steel. When you spend all day on your feet, this reduction in weight adds up. Carbon-fiber toes are also non-metallic, which is an added benefit for workers whose jobs may require them to pass through metal detectors throughout the workday.  

With advances in material innovations at the forefront of product development, we’re seeing more athletic inspired safety footwear crafted from high-tensile strength, breathable fabrics that provide support and durability with a more lightweight, sporty feel. These can be excellent options for manufacturing, warehousing and indoor environments. Additionally, more safety boots now incorporate innovative midsoles that offer extreme cushioning and energy return, providing enhanced comfort with each step. And, for those workers in cold and often temperamental weather and environments, there have been great advances made with breathable waterproof membranes and lightweight insulation, offering even more rugged protection and comfort for the wearer. With all of this in mind, when it comes to selecting the best safety footwear for women, comfort and protection no longer have to be mutually exclusive.  

The Future of PPE for tradeswomen 

As the number of women in the skilled trades continues to climb, it is critical that the world of PPE becomes more inclusive. Addressing the safety needs of tradeswomen is a major step towards creating a safer and more equal working environment for all. The future is very promising for our sisters in the trades as well as manufacturers who approach personal protection with a more holistic view.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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