A new poll shows that a majority of women have trouble finding properly fitting PPE for their jobs. Ill-fitting PPE isn’t just uncomfortable, it can be extremely dangerous. As the industry faces a major worker shortage, women are more important to the construction sector than ever before. But, because women are still a small minority in the industry, focus on their comfort and safety is severely lacking. To create an equitable work environment and prevent serious injuries, employers need to invest in PPE that will fit women and non-traditional construction worker’s bodies. 

What is Construction PPE?

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is vital to keeping construction workers comfortable and safe. PPE protects workers from many hazards on the worksite. This can include protection from falling objects, burns, exposure to chemicals, electrical hazards and more. Some common PPE equipment includes helmets, gloves, respiratory masks, eye protection, and high-visibility clothing. OSHA requires that employers provide their employees with the proper safety equipment. Yet, many women still report a lack of properly fitting PPE. 


Women in Construction have a hard time finding PPE that suits their needs

A recent poll conducted by J.J. Keller found that 50% of a survey of 100 women “regularly” had trouble finding PPE that fit them well. Another 34% said that they had difficulty finding properly fitting PPE “once in a while”. This means that in the survey, a majority of women had at least some difficulty finding PPE to suit their needs. In the same poll, women were also asked how their ill-fitting PPE correlates with their feelings of safety on the job site. 54% said that it impacts their feelings of safety “a lot,” while others said it impacted them “a little bit.”

Similarly, in a studyCanadian Women’s Experiences with Personal Protective Equipment in the Workplace,” of over 3,000 women, many reported that their PPE doesn’t fit, is uncomfortable to wear, and doesn’t provide the protection it is supposed to.”  Some of those women reported having to buy their own PPE or even modifying their PPE with duct tape to increase safety. 

And they’re not wrong to feel unsafe, ill-fitting PPE is dangerous. 

Ill-fitting PPE is Dangerous

In the Canadian survey, “nearly 40% (of 3,000 women) reported experiencing an injury or incident that they perceived to be related to their PPE.” This included injuries from tripping over too long of pants, burns from oversized protective vests, and injuries related to too loose fall protection harnesses. 

Ill-fitting PPE has the potential to cause even more serious injuries as well. Baggy clothing could get caught in heavy machinery causing major injuries or even death. Loose gloves decrease range of motion and make many tasks more dangerous. Oversized eye and inhalation protection could let debris and chemicals into workers bodies. Discomfort and potential for injury has caused some women to buy their own gear out-of-pocket- or even forgo safety gear entirely.  

Supply Issues

There are many reasons why women aren’t provided for when it comes to construction PPE. In construction, OSHA standards state that “the employer is responsible for requiring the wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment in all operations where there is an exposure to hazardous conditions …” (1926.28(a) ). Yet, many companies find it difficult to supply their female employees with the proper PPE.

Some of this has to do with limited manufacturing. In fact, one survey reported by OSHA, found that only 14 percent of manufacturers offered ear, head, and face protection in women’s sizes. Of the manufacturers who do carry women’s sizes, stock is often limited and lead times are long. This can make it difficult for employers to know where to find manufacturers who carry women’s PPE and to order it in a timely manner. This means that much of the time, companies won’t have proper equipment for women on hand.

Attitudes Toward Women on Construction Sites

It doesn’t help that construction’s culture can make many women feel uncomfortable asking for accommodations. Construction has had problems with sex discrimination for decades. According to a 1999 OSHA study, 41% of female construction workers suffered from gender harassment and 88% reported sexual harassment during a 1 year period. Although this data is from the 1990’s, this year the The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said that women and minorities in the construction industry still face “severe and pervasive” discrimination. In a study from 2023, nearly half (46%) of a survey of 770 women, said they’d been the target of derogatory comments or jokes from their colleagues.
It’s no wonder then, that many women in the industry find it difficult to ask for accommodation- especially when discussing their bodies. Plus, PPE is rarely ever designed for women-specific issues. In the Canadian study, only 6% of women who wore PPE during pregnancy were accommodated and just 5% while breastfeeding. One worker who was pregnant reported that she’d: “be unable to wear my own coveralls soon so I thought if I grew bigger, I would be wearing belly extenders or leggings, both of which I would have been uncomfortable to mention to a supervisor to be reimbursed.”
 

Construction PPE for Women Should Go Beyond “Shrink It and Pink It”

When companies do provide women with PPE, it can often be uncomfortable and look different from male colleagues. This comes from what many describe as a “shrink it and pink it” mindset. “Shrink it and pink it” is essentially where designers simply take mens PPE, shrink it and make it in stereotypically feminine colors. This leaves women no choice but to don ill-fitting, albeit smaller and less comfortable gear. Plus, some women might be ok with wearing bright stereotypically feminine colors like pink and purple, but many would rather fit in with the rest of the team. And, in a male-dominated industry, some women report that pink “just adds to the difficulty in being taken seriously in the workplace.”
 

Women’s PPE should come in similar colors to that of mens. Along with height and weight, well-designed women’s PPE should take into account women’s typically narrower shoulders, somewhat narrower waist, and larger hips. Zippers should come up higher on vests to provide more coverage. Pants should have a higher inseam and gloves should be designed for slimmer fingers and smaller hands. Of course, no two women’s bodies are the same, but even these small changes could increase safety and comfort. 

Beyond Gender: PPE Inclusivity

It’s not just women who are traditionally left out of PPE designs. According to Grainger, PPE is often still designed based on “outdated anthropometric data.” A lot of PPE is designed based on data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH’s sizing data is based on military records from the 1950’s to 1970’s to design PPE clothing, equipment, and tools.

The problem is that this data often excludes body types from non-white people and those who differ in typical heights and weights of the average American soldier some 50-70 years ago. This means that there are probably many workers besides women who have trouble with their safety gear

 

Increased Equity on Worksites and Employee Retention Go Hand-In-Hand

 

According to the Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk, 78% of construction companies are having difficulty hiring workers. Plus, turnover rate is very high. This is particularly true for young people. “On average, turnover rate in the construction industry hovers around 21.4% with employees 24 or younger reaching about 64%.”

Even as the construction industry faces these major worker shortages and difficulty with retention, women accounted for
just 10.9 percent of the entire U.S. construction workforce in 2022. Clearly, women are an untapped labor market. Addressing their concerns is more important than ever. Ill fitting PPE can make women feel unsafe, unprofessional, and overlooked at their job. By providing PPE that meets the needs of most women, companies may find that they are able to hire and keep more women talent. The same goes for people of all body types and genders. Without the proper gear, would you stay at a dangerous job?

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