The importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) tailored for women cannot be overstated in the traditionally male-dominated field of construction. As more women join the industry, the need for appropriate PPE is a matter not only of equality but safety.
PPE is designed to protect workers from workplace hazards of all kinds – from safety vests, gloves and boots to fall protection harnesses and breathing respirators. However, the majority of PPE has historically been designed with a male physique in mind, often leading to ill-fitting equipment for women. This mismatch can be more than just uncomfortable, it can be unsafe.
Sara Feuling, P.E., remembers being handed an extra-large safety vest “that could have fit two of me” and being told that’s all they had on her first day of a new job in the construction industry. Her boss at the time didn’t see a problem; but Sara knew that the vest was not only uncomfortable, but dangerous.
Starting a new job, especially in the construction industry which can involve potentially dangerous situations, is hard enough. Being worried that you are going to snag your protective clothing on something day one is not a good introduction to this great industry.
Eventually, Sara and her mother sewed up the extra-large safety vest to make it fit better, and Sara went out and bought class 2 shirts and other needed PPE. Fast forward 15 years and the industry has made “great progress” in women’s PPE, Sara says, “but there is still a long way to go” to properly fitting PPE being the expectation.
PPE Saves Lives
A proposed OSHA rule seeks to bring the construction industry PPE requirements in line with other industries that explicitly require equipment to fit properly. Sara is hopeful this change will help keep not only women safe, but workers of all sizes and shapes.
“It's a safety issue,” she says. “And I think that people not in the industry don't really realize that. They're like, ‘well, you just don't like a vest that's oversized, or boots that are not pretty – but some of this stuff, when you're you know, a couple of 100 feet up in the air, boots that don't fit is life or death.”
Sara started out working on roads in Wisconsin for the state department of transportation and then moved into project management roles that utilized her civil engineering background. She is now Senior Director, Construction at Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), where she often talks with a wide variety of women in all sectors of the construction and infrastructure industry.
Sara is happy that women today are more likely to receive proper fitting PPE – or at the least know to ask for it. There is more awareness and discussion around women’s PPE, more options from manufacturers and, in general, an understanding of why proper fitting PPE is so important, she says.
Manufacturers of PPE are taking the time to visit project sites to talk directly with women to find out what their PPE needs are and how to create products that will make them comfortable and keep them safe.
“I really do give the manufacturers a lot of credit there for really focusing more on the actual need of their of their customer,” Sara says.
Next Generation of Women Workers
Having proper PPE options is only half the battle. Companies need to understand and prioritize women’s PPE. Contractors that do so will contribute to the comfort, safety and retention of women in the construction industry, while also promoting a culture of inclusivity and safety.
“We keep trying to draw more women to the industry,” Sara says. “We want that perspective. We want that workforce. But if we're not meeting the needs of that demographic, no wonder they're not looking at us as a viable option. And this is just one simple entry point to that.”
Sara credits cultural shifts as pivotal in changing how women are treated in the industry. Many Millennials are now in leadership positions, and the upcoming Gen. Z is looking to the trades for a career path. These two generations are not afraid to speak their minds and ask for change.
“So, a little bit of that challenging authority,” Sara says. “You can't make change if you're not questioning and reevaluating what you're currently doing.”
Sara looks back over the past 15-20 years and sees a lot of progress in ensuring the safety of women workers.
“The fact that we are having a conversation about properly fitting PPE for a woman in itself is a success story,” she says.
Sara says there is still a long road ahead to proper PPE being the standard on day one for women across all sectors of the large industry that is construction and infrastructure.
In a perfect world, Sara says that there would be three steps to keep women workers safe, starting on day one. First, all companies would have PPE options to order. Two, once a company hires a woman, they would order the proper fitting gear. And then three, “the woman shows up and feels safe on her first day on the job.”
Sara is hopeful that in the near future, no women will face the safety challenges of not having proper PPE to keep them safe like she did her first day on a job site
“If we're going to draw in this workforce and change how we tell our industry story to attract that workforce, we need to make the job safe for them when they get there.”
HOW CONTRACTORS CAN HELP
Construction contractors play a pivotal role in ensuring that the needs for proper fitting PPE for women are met. Here are several ways they can contribute.
Educate Employees: Offer training sessions on the importance of properly fitting PPE, how to select the right size, and how to use it correctly.
Provide a Range of Sizes and Options: Stock a variety of PPE sizes and styles to accommodate different body shapes and sizes. This includes smaller sizes and designs specifically tailored for women. Offer an allowance to buy anything not available on site.
Incorporate PPE Considerations in Safety Policies: Revise safety policies to include guidelines on PPE for women, ensuring that these considerations are formalized and prioritized.
Regular Safety Audits: Conduct regular safety audits to ensure that all workers, including women, are using PPE correctly and that it is providing the necessary protection.
Promote a Safety-First Culture: Foster a workplace culture that prioritizes safety above all else, where the proper use of PPE is seen as essential and non-negotiable.
Lead by Example: Management and senior staff should lead by example, consistently using and advocating for the correct use of properly fitting PPE.
Photo credit: Sara Feuling, P.E.