Making PPE Safer by Design for Women in Industrial Jobs
Women’s PPE shouldn’t just be sized down, it should be designed for their bodies.
- By Genevieve Baziw, Amber Izworkski
- Dec 01, 2022
In 2020, there were approximately 70 million women in the U.S. workforce, representing 56.2 percent of all workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. While substantially underrepresented in traditionally male-dominated industries, the number of women choosing to enter these roles continues to increase, a trend spurred by increasing opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related jobs.
According to a 2019 McKinsey report, 33 percent of entry-level employees in the oil & gas industry are women. And the American Petroleum Institute projects that employment of women in the oil & gas and petrochemical industries will account for 185,000 of the total job opportunities through 2030.
Despite the increasing number of women now working in these industries, there are still far too many who do not have access to PPE sized for women. Trying to “make do” with PPE designed for men is not only an issue of decreased comfort but also a matter of safety—potentially a matter of life and death.
Regulatory Compliance is Just the Beginning
Employers can be in compliance with OSHA regulations for PPE but may not be meeting the specific sizing needs of its female workforce.
That’s because OSHA 29 CFR 1910.132 “General Requirements for Personal Protective Equipment” states that an employer shall assess the workplace for hazards, select PPE that will protect affected employees from the hazards identified and select PPE that properly fits each affected employee.
Employers who offer the appropriate PPE for the identified hazards in a wide range of sizes will be in compliance with the regulation. However, if the PPE is designed for men, the women employees must deal with fit issues—compromising both comfort and safety.
It is interesting to note that in OSHA 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I Appendix B, there is non-mandatory guidance that states “Careful consideration must be given to comfort and fit. PPE that fits poorly will not afford the necessary protection. Continued wearing of the device is more likely if it fits the wearer comfortably. Protective devices are generally available in a variety of sizes. Care should be taken to ensure that the right size is selected.”
Proper Fit is Vital for Safety
Just as there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all PPE, it is unrealistic to expect that PPE based on male anthropometric (body measurement) data would fit women properly. When PPE does not fit properly, it may fail to protect the worker against the hazards for which it was designed.
For example, when a woman is wearing a flame-resistant (FR) garment designed for a man, the sizing and measurements are off, resulting in a looser and baggier fit, which can put the wearer’s safety at serious risk. After all, PPE is the last line of defense against workplace hazards.
In addition to FR garments and other protective apparel that doesn’t fit properly, women face challenges with work gloves and safety goggles that are often too large, as well as the lack of maternity PPE.
Ill-fitting PPE can reduce mobility and impair physical dexterity, adversely affecting productivity and—more importantly—posing safety risks, such as tripping hazards or loose fabric getting caught in machinery.
“I’ve never had a coverall that fit appropriately and if you don’t have something that fits, you can’t do certain tasks safely,” said Joy Jacobsen, MS, CIH, CSP, CRSP, EP, Industrial Hygienist at Amsted Rail, past chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association Women in Industrial Hygiene Committee and chair of the AIHA Respiratory Protection Committee. “You can unknowingly exclude people by not having proper PPE to do the work,” she added.
When PPE is uncomfortable or doesn’t fit properly, many workers—regardless of gender—either don’t wear it or try to modify it while on the job. These practices lead to a high number of injuries. In fact, a survey of 1,000 safety professionals identified failure to wear PPE as the second-leading cause of workplace injuries.
PPE for Women that is Safer by Design
Industry associations, PPE manufacturers and major employers alike are increasingly recognizing the importance of providing female workers with PPE that is safer by design, and they are taking steps to make it happen.
For example, in 2018, the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) hosted a summit on the safety of women in the workplace. The top issue addressed during the summit was how to close the gap in availability of PPE designed specifically for women and “educating leadership about the need for and availability of such equipment.”
Summit participants developed a list of action items that employers and other stakeholders could take to help improve the availability of PPE for women, such as gathering data to develop universal fit guidelines; providing ratings of PPE and work gear; publishing guidance for equipment users; and participating in an ASSP technical report that would include guidance on selecting PPE for different populations.
The following year, the International Safety Equipment Association began a collaboration with ASSP and its Women in Safety Excellence Common Interest Group to help educate employers and other stakeholders about this important issue.
New Product Offerings
Some PPE manufacturers have already expanded their product offerings to meet this crucial need. And the new products are not simply scaled-down versions of men’s PPE; they are designed specifically for women.
A good example is what a major manufacturer of FR garments has recently introduced to meet the needs of women working in the oil & gas or petrochemical industries. Their new FR shirts for women have side seams designed to allow movement without coming untucked and feature a uniquely designed chest pocket to fit a woman because she still needs secured storage. Its new FR pants, as well as a pleated FR coverall, were also designed based on female anthropometric data to help ensure that women have full range of motion, enabling them to move, bend and work in comfort. All of these garments are UL-certified to meet NFPA 2112.
A representative from the FR garment manufacturer summed it up by saying, “We want comfortable FR to be the first thing that comes to mind as a woman puts on her lightweight and breathable shirts, pants and coveralls that we have designed specifically for women. Because putting yourself in harm’s way shouldn’t require putting yourself in men’s clothing.”
Delivering on Safety and DE&I Commitments
Growing awareness, combined with strong corporate commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), have resulted in some major employers taking action to ensure that every worker—regardless of gender—has access to PPE that fits properly.
One example is Dow, a global materials science company that has a portfolio of plastics, industrial intermediates, coatings and silicones businesses. The decision to address the need for PPE designed specifically for women began at the company’s 1,500-acre petrochemical manufacturing complex in Plaquemine, Louisiana.
At this facility, the company manufactures chemicals used in thousands of everyday household products. More than 30 percent of the workforce at this site are women, a majority of whom are engineers. When talking to women engineers across the plant, there were several common issues they faced that made addressing the problem of ill-fitting FR garments a priority.
Following a successful site wear trial of newly available FR pants, shirts and coveralls designed specifically for women, Dow is now in the process of making these garments available at all of its sites in North America.
“Making clothes that are safer for women and that allow them to do their job without distraction or worry is an easy win and we’re glad to bring this solution to the women of Dow so we can continue our tradition of safety,” said Kait Culy, Senior Industrial Hygiene Specialist at Dow Louisiana Operations.
DuPont provides another good example of a major company leading the way in educating about this issue and ensuring availability of more inclusive garment options for women that are safer by design. As a global innovation leader with technology-based materials and solutions, DuPont has a large workforce—including a growing number of women—working in manufacturing facilities and research and development (R&D) labs around the world.
An audit of PPE at DuPont sites was recently conducted. While all sites were NFPA 2112/70E compliant, most were not aware of the availability of women’s-styled/sized FR garments. Audit teams also reported that lack of PPE designed for women is causing safety concerns as well as problems related to wearer comfort and decreased morale attributed to feelings of not being valued and respected. Leadership hopes to overcome these challenges through increased availability of women’s fit PPE.
Wear trials of newly available women’s-styled/sized protective apparel have been completed at DuPont manufacturing facilities in Asturias, Spain and in Richmond, Virginia. Additional wear trials are currently underway at various company sites in the U.S. and in Europe.
“Making FR clothing available in women’s sizes is long overdue. We have many female workers in our plants and they are happy to finally have access to FR work uniforms that fit comfortably,” said Barbara Dawson, Global Occupational Hygiene Leader for DuPont. “This is an important step in bringing equity to our workplaces and ensuring that our female workers are as safe as our male employees. We are especially excited about our Sourcing group’s work with our third- party provider to make these garments available to our site employees.”
Within the last few years, the need for PPE designed specifically for women has finally become a major topic for discussion. Although long overdue, this growing awareness combined with the fact that more women continue to enter the workforce in traditionally male-dominated industries will undoubtedly drive increased demand and hopefully result in more PPE manufacturers expanding their product offerings in the very near future.
There is still so much work to be done, but we are encouraged by the progress that has been made recently and are looking forward to the day when there are more inclusive PPE options available to all women in the workforce.
This article originally appeared in the December 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.