Top Three Trends for Women and PPE in Safety

Top Three Trends for Women and PPE in Safety

When women—and their specific safety needs—are considered, workplace safety increases.

Women play a key role in the workforce today. That’s a fact that we take for granted now, however, as recently as 20 years ago that was not necessarily true. As a matter of fact, women’s workforce participation increased from just 43 percent in 1972 to 57 percent today, while men’s workforce participation declined from 77 percent in 1972 to 67 percent today. This bodes well for industries with an aging workforce that were predominately male in the past—where women entering these fields can help fill the worker gap, bringing additional benefits to the workforce, as aging baby boomers retire.  

The purposeful work of a safety manager—helping to ensure workers make it home safely to their families at night—is real. And, fortunately, there’s good news for women safety professionals, where the gender pay gap has narrowed considerably. A 2018 study determined the average woman safety professionals earned 91 percent of a man’s income. As a whole, women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s have steadily increased—from 65 percent in 1980 to 82 percent in 2010—and are approaching equity for safety professionals. This trend continues as women climb the ladder, joining leadership ranks in fields that were historically dominated by men—such as in the energy sector, utilities and manufacturing.  

As women make strides professionally, the protective apparel they wear is constantly evolving and improving. As recently as ten years ago, it was difficult to find arc-rated and flame resistant (AR/FR) protective apparel—for those who face arc flash or flash fire hazards in their work environments—or EH-rated boots made specifically for women. Now, manufacturers are seeing the potential to meet the needs of this underserved market and are creating products that account for differences in style, body type and fit to meet the needs of all women. Three trends are particularly groundbreaking:  

Apparel Choice = Increased Compliance  

Twenty years ago, AR/FR uniform programs were the norm, with men and women alike relegated to wearing the same light blue shirt and navy pants every day, day-in and day-out. For the longest time, in these “one size fits all” programs, women were expected to “size down” in men’s products, with no effort made to provide clothing that actually fit women properly. This led to worker dissatisfaction, poor morale and challenges with compliance.  

Today, the trend for many companies is moving away from uniform-type programs and towards programs that offer product choice at the individual level. Safety managers create a catalog of products that meet corporate budgetary, image, quality and protective requirements and women (and men) have the option to determine what they want to wear. And, good news—in the past five years, these catalogs increasingly include products designed specifically for women. When women (and men) have real choice in the protective apparel they wear all day every day, from a selection of well-designed items, morale improves immensely. This, in turn, drives increased safety compliance—a boon to any corporate safety program!  

Protective Apparel made Specifically for Women  

In the past ten years, the AR/FR industry recognized the need to improve—and offer protective apparel made specifically for women. That means clothing that takes into account women’s body types, while maintaining the key safety features critical to protecting women on-the-job.  

Specialty AR/FR manufacturers that are focused exclusively on protective apparel such as Bulwark, National Safety Apparel (NSA), TrueNorth, Lapco and Tyndale led the effort, expanding products for women—designing products from ground up to fit women properly, with an increased focus on cut and comfort, offering products that take women from work-to-weekend successfully.  

This, in turn, led brand-name manufacturers such as Ariat, Carhartt, Wrangler and others to enter the market. These popular lifestyle brands modeled their AR/FR work wear lines after the most popular styles in their non-protective work wear lines. This has been the key to bringing women’s work wear to the next level—with products women want to wear. Boot cut, curvy fit and slim cut jeans, denims with stretch and stylish back-pocket designs have all been introduced to the market in the past five years.  

Development of specialty apparel such as maternity wear—maternity bibs and pants—came directly from field requests from pregnant women that needed AR/FR protection while on the job. They couldn’t find what they needed and specialty AR/FR manufacturers rose to the challenge, designing and manufacturing products to fit this niche. AR/FR bras and underwear are available from several suppliers, and FR socks round out the offering as a new addition slated to be introduced shortly.  

Several women entrepreneurs personally identified an unmet need through their own difficulties in finding work wear that fit. These women felt so passionate about making products that provided protection with fit and comfort designed specifically for women that they started companies to address the lack of work wear options they faced on the job. Recent market entrants in women’s niche AR/FR brands include Hautework by National Safety Apparel and Dovetail Work Wear—bringing their own unique look and style, with great fit and functional products to women.  

Women’s Safety Standards  

Several standards have been updated in recent years to take into account the female worker. In 2015, ANSI 107 High Visibility Safety Apparel Standard was updated, changing the amount of background material necessary to meet the standard. Previously, the amount of background material required meant that the smallest product size available to meet the standard was “medium” so that smaller workers (frequently women) literally had to wear an oversized product—thus exposed to a different hazard: baggy clothing!  

And, while not required, it’s recommended that women exposed to arc flash and flash fire hazards on the job wear AR/FR women’s bras and underwear, or 100 percent cotton or silk options. ASTM F1506-20a mentions base layers in the appendix—this is non-mandatory but helpful information. “X1.1.1 Garments worn as underlayers (underwear) that neither ignite nor melt and drip in the course of an exposure to the electric arc and related thermal hazard may provide additional thermal insulation.” Cotton, silk or AR/FR options are best suited to meet this recommendation and while the options are limited, they are available.  

Footwear is one area where the standards have specifically addressed women workers. ASTM F2412, Standard Specification for Footwear includes a test method that takes into account the differences between men and women, with regards to metatarsal impact. In this test method, there’s an adjustment to the positioning of a striking bar simulating metatarsal impact on the foot for women vs. men.  

What Safety Professionals Can Do 

As women continue to move into historically male-dominated professions, safety leaders must make women’s apparel selections more than an afterthought. In the past, worker-choice clothing programs were dominated by products for men, with women considered only at the last minute. More and more, women are—rightfully—demanding products that fit, that they can wear comfortably and safely on the job. Both women and men in leadership roles can contribute to the success of women by taking full advantage of the products on the market. 

Part of this means partnering with a protective clothing supplier that offers the industry’s full range of products developed specifically for women, and considering women in forecasting and stocking strategies to support reliable product delivery; one that is listening and responding to the needs of both women and the overall workforce, understands the power of choice to drive satisfaction and safety, offers personalized solutions to the challenges you face and is dedicated to innovation and continuous improvement—all while adhering to your company’s protective, image and budgetary requirements and vetting products to ensure quality and performance. Speak to and evaluate your supplier! 

It’s also critical to take the time to listen to the increasing number of women in your workforce. Interviews, focus groups or panels comprised of women in the field, open dialogue and collaboration with qualified service providers that can offer best practices and recommendations can make an immeasurable difference. One easy way to get started is to follow along with “Women in Power,” a series of video-based interviews spotlighting the experiences of women leading the way in non-traditional fields like utilities, oil and gas. In their own words, women share their hopes for the workforce, vision for the evolution of PPE, advice for empowering other women and more.

Moving Forward Together 

In 2022, there’s a wide variety of women’s AR/FR apparel options on the market. While many safety leaders have prioritized women’s apparel choice, there’s more work to be done. Stop and listen to the needs of the increasing number of women in the field. Be sure that your workforce has the options available and access to a qualified service provider to ensure they are comfortable, compliant and safe on the job—so they can return home each night to their family safely.  

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

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