Check any safety supply company website and you’ll likely find a very male-orientated selection. Some websites even feature more male high-visibility jackets than the total number of women’s high-visibility clothing items combined. With a rise in the number of females taking on construction and warehouse work, it is imperative that personal protective equipment (PPE) used by women features female-oriented design.
Industrial Safety: One Size Does Not Fit All
Until recently, it was typical for managers to supply women with standard PPE made for a male-dominated industrial workforce. PPE created for the average male body can increase the risk of injury to women, as it is generally too large or out of proportion for the female frame. Poorly fitted PPE can cause serious safety hazards such as:
- Reduced mobility and dexterity from oversized, poorly fitting gloves
- Increased risk of baggy clothing catching on machinery and equipment
- Higher danger of trips and falls due to shoe coverings and footwear being too large
- Greater possibility of head injuries due to larger, ill-fitted head protection
- Obstructed vision from loose-fitting hard hats
- Discomfort and heightened risk of falls from improperly designed harnesses
Women can also be inclined to alter their PPE if it doesn't fit properly. PPE garments and supplies have certification to a specific standard. Manufacturers test it in the particular way that they intend people to wear it, so when a user manipulates a garment to improve its fit by cutting or tying fabric, for example, it may not be compliant; adding to an already increased safety risk.
Aside from the increased risk to female workers’ physical safety, derogatory comments may result from poor-fitting PPE. These judgments can undermine a worker's value in the workplace and impact her confidence and performance on the job.
Women’s Safety Supplies: From Top to Toe
There is vital safety industrial equipment necessary for every work site. Proper tools and PPE increase confidence for all workers, but only when adequately designed and fitted. PPE provided to female workers must focus on female anthropometric data. OSHA has reported tremendous progress in the availability of PPE for women.
Head and Face Protection
Women often have smaller heads than men. Be sure to provide all workers with hard hats that include adjustable straps and smaller suspension systems. With additional PPE including earmuffs, headgear can become heavy and imbalanced leading to headaches and discomfort. Opt for strong, sturdy, and lightweight hard hats and headgear that fit properly for maximum protection.
Safety glasses and goggles are often "one size fits all," but these can be too big for many women. If gaps around the seals form, flying objects, smoke, and chemicals can cause damage to the eyes. Fogging of the lenses can also lead to accidents and mishaps as workers are more inclined to remove goggles to see properly. Ensure all safety eyewear is appropriate for the risks of the job and have a qualified person properly fit all protective eyewear.
Gloves and Protective Clothing
When women have to wear men’s clothing, they must make do with poorly fitted jackets, vests, pants, and gloves. Oversized clothing is uncomfortable and can increase the chances of injury to your workers. Poorly fitted gloves do not provide adequate protection, especially when tasks involve sharp tools, machinery, or chemical hazards.
Improperly fitted clothing also detracts from any worker’s ability to do the job correctly. Workers in sloppy gear are less efficient, slower, and make a greater number of errors. Ensure all clothing is free of defects and well fitted. Women’s clothing such as jackets and vests require shorter sleeves and tapered waists to ensure there is no excess material. Pant legs need to be shorter to prevent tripping and catching on machinery and equipment, with the waist requiring a design suitable to the female form. Discuss your requirements with your safety supply companies to ensure you cater to smaller hand sizes as well as clothing sizes.
When it comes to protective footwear, men have a large range of colors, styles, and sizes to choose from. Women do not. Managers should not expect female employees to wear smaller-sized male protective footwear. Female feet are typically smaller and narrower than male feet, with different degrees of arching. Manufacturers and safety suppliers have slowly begun to meet the needs of female employees who wear standard work boots, but there is still significant room for improvement.
The foot protection supplied to your female workers must be adequate not only in size but also form and function. Women should make it a priority to test all PPE provided by their employers, and if uncomfortable or unsuitable, report this to their managers for suitable replacements.
The following video shows some of the changes London Transport Museum made when it comes to implementing PPE designed specifically for women:
How to Make Changes in Your Workplace
The first line of defense in any workplace is to control or completely remove hazards. Where this is not possible, employees must wear PPE. Remember that the first "P" in PPE stands for "personal," so it's important to consider all of your workers when choosing and buying PPE. Streamlining your size or style of protection undermines and negates any effort to protect your staff. Ensure you meet the needs of your female workers and confirm that your industrial safety supply company understands that this is a priority.
Manufacturers and safety supply companies play a crucial role in the availability and provision of PPE. Choose your PPE provider carefully to ensure it stocks a large range of options for women and men. Together, you can plan a safe future for your company and all of your employees.
The Take-Home Message
The construction workforce has become more diverse over the years to include men and women with different backgrounds and levels of experience. Protecting your employees, whether male or female, goes beyond simply providing adequate and well-fitted PPE.
It's important to provide safety and health protection to your diverse construction workforce, including the provision of safety training, hygiene facilities, and reproductive protection. It is also necessary to equip workers with ergonomic tools, as standard devices designed for the average-sized man, like clothing, are not ideal for women with generally smaller wrists and less upper body strength. Ask the right questions and ensure your safety supply company knows the needs of all your workers, to ensure you afford everyone the same protection.