Getting the Right Fit
How women’s PPE creates a safe and inclusive job site.
- By Mary Padron
- Jun 01, 2023
Historically, PPE was designed and made for men, with little consideration for women in the workplace. At the time, this mindset was understandable because most women worked at home and not at industrial job sites. However, when men went off to war in World War II, all that changed.
According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, “American women played important roles during World War II, both at home and in uniform. Not only did they give their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers to the war effort, they gave their time, energy, and some even gave their lives. … More than 6 million women took wartime jobs in factories, three million volunteered with the Red Cross, and over 350,000 served in the military.”
Rosie the Riveter
Do you remember Rosie the Riveter, the World War II media icon in the famous “We Can Do It” poster? The function of this poster was to recruit women for factory work to produce munitions and other war materials.
In the poster, Rosie is wearing a red and white polka-dot red bandanna tied with a bow at the top of her head and her workwear is oversized. Her attire reflected the mindset of PPE for women at that time.
More than half a century after that iconic poster appeared, a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advisory committee heard complaints about ill-fitting PPE and garments that were being provided to women in non-traditional jobs.
Their 1999 report determined that “poor-fitting protective equipment and clothing frequently did not function in the manner for which it was designed; accordingly, protection that the gear was supposed to deliver was compromised—leading to serious health and safety risks for women in those trades.”
Then in 2020, COVID-19 exponentially exposed gender inequities around the fit and design of PPE in the medical community.
“Although women make up 70% of the health workforce, medical PPE across all areas is designed with a default male body in mind,” according to the World Health Organization. “When a majority of health workers are women, if the PPE doesn’t fit women, it doesn’t fit health workers.”
And now, with more women entering construction, the trades, oil & gas, utilities and other industrial sectors, the importance of safeguarding female employees has gained momentum, especially in protective clothing and above-the-neck protection.
The Right Fit is It!
Every industrial safety pro knows that PPE is essential to ensure the safety and health of workers. However, as in the medical community, if PPE doesn’t fit right, it creates hazards and sometimes fatalities instead of preventing them. No matter the industry. No matter the gender. The end user needs to be protected with PPE that fits.
Because industrial work crews are often male-dominated, women often receive men’s apparel that is one or two sizes smaller than what they would normally wear.
This “band-aid” approach can lead to bringing out the Band-Aids when the ill-fitting vest snags on equipment, knocking her to the ground or when she gets blisters on her feet from wearing work boots designed for men’s feet.
Without properly fitting PPE, female workers may be less motivated to wear their protective gear. Or they may take matters into their own hands and alter the PPE so it fits them.
They may roll up sleeves or pant legs, which could expose areas of skin to hazards. And let’s not even talk about duct tape and safety pin alterations and fixes! All these band-aid solutions and situations compromise compliance.
When awareness about women’s PPE began to appear, manufacturers often created pink hard hats and pink vests but later realized that sometimes the “pink it” approach made women feel ostracized from their male peers.
Instead of designing PPE around the traditional pink color associated with females, women in the trades wanted “fit me” PPE that enhanced productivity while offering reliable protection from job site hazards.
Why Specify Women’s PPE?
Significant manufacturing and distribution strides have been made in recent years to improve PPE design for women. Availability has also increased as a variety of PPE for women can be purchased, including high-visibility vests and jackets, protective eyewear, hearing protection, hard hats and FR workwear.
Unfortunately, the increased availability of women’s PPE is in vain if it is not purchased. The next step is to help safety professionals learn more about the female-specific PPE choices in the marketplace and the benefits these choices will bring to a safety program.
Instead of purchasing one size in bulk or gender-neutral unisex clothing, safety professionals will accomplish more when purchasing PPE that suits each worker individually.
So, what are the benefits of specifying women’s PPE? Including women’s PPE in your safety program has many physical, economic and emotional benefits, including:
- Reduced injuries and fatalities
- Appropriate protection that is also comfortable
- Increased compliance
- Economic benefits from increased productivity and decreased OSHA violations
- Equity and inclusion
- A feeling of well-being and belonging
With all these benefits, including women’s PPE in safety programs appears to be a no-brainer. But why are so many job sites still without it?
The Misconception of Price Objections
“One reason many companies haven’t made the switch to purchasing women’s PPE is they think it is a lot more expensive than men’s PPE,” said product manager, Nicole Novick. “This misconception is a roadblock that needs to come down.
In addition to physical safety, women’s PPE can have a substantial impact on a woman’s confidence in the workplace.
When working in non-traditional trades, women often face challenges that chip away at their sense of belonging and worth. Imagine the morale booster when she gets to wear a surveyor vest that was designed and styled with her in mind.
Design features such as narrower shoulders, raised zippers and vests with side slits at the hips for extra flexibility and mobility allow for a tailored and comfortable fit, enhancing her well-being, productivity and protection.
The impact of female-specific PPE extends beyond the female worker. It affects the employer as well. Workplace injuries and fatalities can have weighty economic costs, from lost productivity to increased insurance rates, all of which negatively impact profits and a company’s bottom line.
While significant improvements have been made in women’s PPE, the market has not met its true potential yet and will require continued efforts from manufacturers, distributors and end users. Employers play a critical role in this effort.
Providing women’s PPE for female employees is a matter of safety, equity and inclusion. By acknowledging and addressing the unique PPE needs of employees, companies can create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all workers.
This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.