On March 2, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and Autodesk announced they will provide grants to 21 construction companies to design 300 fall protection safety harnesses for women. The goal of these grants’ is not only to ensure women have access to properly fitted personal protective equipment (PPE), but also to recruit more women into the construction workforce. This decision brings to light the problem many women have in finding PPE that fits well.
PPE that is ill-fitting leaves wearers at risk of not being protected against hazards and increases the chances of illnesses, injuries and death.
According to the Center for Construction Research and Training, oversized PPE can lead to tripping hazards or getting caught in machinery. Ill-fitting harnesses may not be effective or can lead to other injuries. Oversized gloves put the user in danger of exposure to other hazards, such as chemicals. One size does not fit all.
OSHA advises PPE should be based on female anthropometric data, and women should alert their employers of unsuitable or uncomfortable PPE to get a replacement. However, getting a replacement that fits isn’t always possible.
According to the American Society for Safety Professionals, it is common to modify PPE to fit better. This is a problem because it can decrease or even eliminate the protective qualities. Another issue described is many of the options available for women are not in a wide range of sizes. People are a wide variety of sizes, and the PPE on the market should reflect this.
Women may wear glasses that are too big, and the gaps allow debris into eyes. Boots may be too big, and this causes tripping, blisters and toes unprotected by the steels cap. This PPE doesn't protect wearers.
Very few distributors carry a line of women’s boots, and when in doubt, it is common to wear the smallest size for men available. Maggie Rogosienski, a first-year apprentice from Milwaukee, has her own struggle with buying boots. “It was the only boot style that a local store carried in a small enough men’s size, but I had to return them because the tongue kept biting into my ankle as I had to tie them so tightly.”
“If I came across a store that offered women’s work shoes and boots, the selection was always a tiny fraction compared to what was offered to the men,” she said. “The styles included steel-toed shoes, maybe a single, basic-fitting brown boot and the rest were covered with some gender-biased color, such as pink or purple in the stitching, laces or even soles, as if we needed our boots to make us stand out from the crowd any more than just being a woman on a construction site had done.”
Rogosienski also mentioned an issue with her hard hats, “The helmet that I have is always as tight as I can make it without adding too much pressure, but headaches are still not completely unavoidable because of it, and, yet, it will still fall off my head if I tilt forward.”
However, efforts are being made to better equip women in construction.
Dovetail Workwear, a women-run company in Portland, Ore., is also trying to change the market by designing workwear specifically with women’s needs in mind.
“When your workwear is a tool on the job and the tool isn’t any good, it can severely impact the quality of your work and have safety ramifications. Cheap fabrics tear when there’s abrasion on the job, ill-fitting pants can cause a toolbelt to drag, or can be a tripping hazard,” said Amanda Gersh, who does public relations for the company.
A wider range of PPE available on the market is a matter of safety. With growing efforts to provide safe, properly-fitted PPE for everyone, more women can feel safe on the job and sure their safety equipment will work as it should.