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President of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) explains why inclusive PPE is so important.
The matter of poor-fitting PPE is by no means a new one and is most certainly one we shouldn’t need to be discussing in 2023, but sadly it’s where we find ourselves. Construction industry events and social media are awash with accounts from women who have had negative experiences with PPE and in some cases whose careers are being hamstrung by it, and it’s an issue I aim to use my platform as CIOB President for 2023/24 to address.
It amazes me that we expect anyone to want to work in our industry when we can’t give them the basic kit to keep them safe. And let’s be clear, this isn’t just an issue faced by women, but also some men and people for whom standard PPE isn’t compatible with body shape and size, religious headwear or other clothing for example. Nor is it a problem purely for construction. Hospitality, healthcare, emergency services and sport are all sectors where I’m aware of issues with the provision of PPE. For example, just a few weeks ago, the Chief Constable for Manchester admitted that body armour is not designed appropriately for women police officers.
By way of background, back in the late 1990s, an architect at Alan Conisbee and Partners designed workwear for women and held a show at City University, London to little reaction. A few years on, in 2009 the issue arose again in conversations at a dining club I set up for women friends in the industry. An informal working group was formed, including representatives from the Association of Women in Property, the Women’s Engineering Society, Women as Role Models and firms including Arup. We launched an initiative called the Purple Boots campaign which included a safety survey on properly fitting PPE. Dunlop collaborated and produced some safety footwear but again, things didn’t progress beyond this.
My interest in PPE was reignited a few months ago after reading a LinkedIn post from an engineer friend voicing concerns over her daughter’s experience of not being provided with fireproof PPE that fitted until her welding course was almost completed.
The post led me to expand the work I was doing with the Internal Working Group at CIOB and resulted in the proposal to carry out research, hold a round table and plan further action. CIOB carried out the survey earlier this year and a staggering 46% of respondents (included male and female) said the PPE they were given on site did not fit properly, while almost half of female respondents said they never wear PPE specially designed for woman.
It can be hard enough being taken seriously as a woman on site, but it’s even harder if you look like a clown in your dad’s hand-me-down kit.
Aside from the fundamental issue of safety, ill-fitting PPE also impacts on confidence. As participants in the round table agreed, it can be hard enough being taken seriously as a woman on site, but it’s even harder if you look like a clown in your dad’s hand-me-down kit. It is the same for female visitors to site where PPE is mandatory, something a construction barrister commented to me at an industry event in London and an HSE inspector remarked at a dinner in Jersey.
As is so often the case, change is driven by determined individuals willing to stand up and speak, leveraged by gathering as a group. The round table hosted by Construction Management and CIOB People, brought such individuals together to share experience, propose practical actions and launch the campaign #PPEthatfits. They were Katherine Evans – founder of the group Bold as Brass – who is identifying manufacturers who produce PPE suitable for women; Sophie Lydia Perkins at Atkins, who has worked with a manufacturer to produce properly fitting footwear for women; Katie Kelleher, a crawler crane operator who is now Technical Development Officer at the Construction Plant Association, Rachel Tomkins who started her career with the Royal Engineers and is now at Tideway, Helen Gawor now at ISG after promoting change in the scaffolding sector. Particularly importantly, the group included Stephanie Eynon of the BSI, whose guidance and commitment on how to embed guidance and practical action are invaluable.
Employers need to review their purchasing of PPE as too many women are unable to find suitable clothing from company supplies and are buying their own directly. One male construction manager told me that he personally sources and collects appropriate PPE for women in the company, as the supplier doesn’t provide it.
As an employer, I am realistic about the challenges of bringing about change in an industry where margins can be very low and where burdens of compliance might be seen as a disincentive to employing women. But we need to attract more people. We need to acknowledge that we’re all different shapes and sizes and taking PPE designed for men and “shrinking it and pinking it” isn’t good enough.
I have a year as President ahead of me, and the #PPEthatfits campaign will, I hope, drive real change and be a legacy of my time in office.