Michelle Stephens has worked 30 years in health and safety, primarily in rail, yet unsuitable PPE continues to be an issue. Here she shares her experiences.
I am 5ft 3 inches, usually weighing in at around 63-65kg, with size four feet, and have been working in health and safety for almost 30 years. All of the PPE that I was given was men’s fit, which was oversized. This was despite ordering small or extra small sizes, or whichever was available at the time. All my boots, trousers, jackets, gloves, and vests were too big.
Boots: I had to wear two pairs of thick walking socks with my boots so that my feet didn’t slip out of them, but this made it more difficult to walk in as they were two sizes too big (size 6), which was (and still is) the smallest size boot I could get – they only do them for men as far as I know. At the time, women’s sizes in steel toe cap/midsole boots weren’t available and more recently I have still struggled to find any.
Trousers: These were always too long; too wide around the hips and legs, and I had to either roll them up or tuck them into my socks. They were also always too big around the waist. For comfort, I ended up just asking for over trousers as these had an elasticated waist so would fit better if I ordered an extra small size. The downside was that this type of trouser can get quite ‘sweaty’, so while they were more comfortable in terms of fit, they were very uncomfortable to wear in warmer conditions.
Jackets: Given my height, jackets always came below my knees, so I had to hitch it up every time I wanted to cross the tracks and step over the railhead or walk up the embankment. It meant that the guys working with me would have to give me a hand because it was just so difficult to navigate without tripping up – not forgetting the hi-vis backpack we often had with us.
Gloves: These were always too big. ‘Jazz hands’ come to mind. It meant, given my role, I had to supply my own gloves (seen in the picture opposite). As I was not required to work trackside I was not at risk if I didn’t wear task-specific gloves, however, for any woman who had to, I can guarantee the gloves would have been too big.
Arc Flash PPE: One of my clients has to provide me with this type of PPE as I am unable to procure it myself due to Network Rail standards. It usually costs up to five times more than normal trackside PPE and I don’t know of any supplier who has this in a ladies’ sizes. Given what this PPE protects against, it has to be very thick and heavy, and given the above, it is very difficult for me to wear and walk in. Having quite a small frame, the seat of the Arc Flash trousers almost reaches the back of my knees, and the waistband rests just under my bust when I pull them up to full length. They are also very wide around my hips and legs. It all means that the sooner the shift is over, the better!
Vests: These were always too big but because they were vests, they were easier to wear over other clothing, but this was only possible during the warmer months, so the comfort was short-lived!
I had no other choice
I must have looked ridiculous in such bad-fitting clothing, but I had no other choice than to wear it; there was nothing else available and the rail industry specifies a certain standard of PPE that must be worn trackside, although no standards have been set for ladies’ PPE.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I became aware that such PPE was available, which my company at the time procured and provided for me. It fitted so much better (also shown in the picture above). My only issue was that the supplier felt the need to include pink labels and a pink flower pattern waistband!
In 2019, I became self-employed and had to procure my PPE with my company’s logo (see photo opposite). Luckily, the supplier I used could provide ladies’ PPE that met Network Rail standards, but the jacket provided had an elasticated band just under the bust to make it a more ‘fitted’ shape. When I asked for this to be taken out, they weren’t able to as they were concerned it would spoil the integrity of the material, so I had to unpick it myself to make it more comfortable to wear on-site.
I still wear over trousers, just for ease, and have found ‘less sweaty’ types but they are still in men’s sizes and still too long.
I want to see more choices for women in shape, size and length and fewer pink labels! Ultimately there should be legislation that mandates that PPE provided by employers must cover all characteristics of the worker they are employing. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all all mentality anymore.
PPE should also take into account the menopause. Not all, but some women can suffer severe hot flashes and sweats. Being layered up with PPE that does not breathe, and is probably uncomfortable anyway, can make a long 12-hour shift seem even longer – I’m almost 52 and can experience several hot flushes and sweats every day so can speak from experience.
Michelle Stephens is the Owner and Director of T&A Safety Services Limited.
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