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Ill-Fitting PPE Hurts Women and Construction

If you have ever seen a female construction worker, chances are she was wearing some kind of personal protective equipment (PPE) and chances are it also didn’t fit.

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

Women make up less than three percent of construction’s labor workforce. That’s approximately 100,000 workers. This might explain why many manufacturers of personal protective equipment (PPE) haven’t caught on that construction is not always “men’s work” and that “standard fit” is not the same for men and women. It’s also possible they simply don’t want to go to the expense of making PPE for such a small number of people.

“Most of the gloves, goggles, respirators, harnesses and work boots that help keep construction workers out of harm’s way are made for average-sized men,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “When women wear PPE that wasn’t designed for them, they contend with gaps, bulges and a poor overall fit that make it uncomfortable, reduce its effectiveness and increase the risk for suffering a workplace injury.”

Gender Makes a Difference

Regardless of their height and weight, women tend to have a smaller bone structure than men, with shorter, narrower hands and feet and smaller facial shape and features. Despite these obvious differences, many designers of PPE do not take them into account. The Ontario Women’s Directorate and Industrial Accident Prevention Association report, Personal Protective Equipment for Women, gives examples of what can happen when women have to make do with PPE that isn’t made for them:

  • A woman with a small face wears the goggles available in the shop. The gaps they leave at her temples allow flying debris from the machine to enter her eyes.
  • A female worker in a sawmill can only get small men’s-sized gloves; the fingers are too long and too wide, the palm area too large and the cuff allows sawdust to fill the fingers. She risks getting her fingers caught in machinery and pinched when she stacks or carries boards.
  • A woman who wears men’s sized work boots reports tripping while walking and climbing stairs or ladders. She also suffers from blisters and burning on the soles of her feet and because her boots are too large, her toes are not protected by the steel cap.

The female construction worker wearing a fall protection harness that doesn’t conform to her body shape isn’t the only one affected when the scaffold she is standing on collapses and the ill-fitting device catches her in such a way that her shoulder is injured. Her employer could face a costly compensation claim and expenses related to lost time and productivity that affect the company’s bottom line. The employer also stands to receive serious OSHA citations because of the lack of compliance with safety regulations.

The construction industry across the board also stands to lose. The average construction worker is almost 43 years old and because of construction’s physical demands, likely to retire early. Ensuring access to properly fitting PPE can make a career in construction more appealing to men and to women and help keep them on the job longer because they are not as likely to get hurt.

“Construction is an equal opportunity employer,” says Borck. “Like the men signing on as apprentices today, more women will be drawn to the building and trades profession when they can be assured that their safety and health is protected.”

Provide the Right PPE

OSHA recommends:

  • Purchasing PPE in a wide range of sizes, including those designed for women.
  • Avoiding PPE marketed as “unisex,” “universal” or “one-size-fits-all.”
  • Maintaining a directory of PPE manufacturers and suppliers and the sizes they offer.
  • Allowing female and male employees to test PPE before they have to use it and replacing it if it doesn’t fit.

OSHA is working on its PPE in construction standard to make it identical to what is required in general industry. This includes requiring employers to select PPE that properly fits each affected employee. This will help all workers, but is especially beneficial to women.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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