August 10, 2023

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Inclusive PPE – more than protection?

Poorly fitting PPE is stopping women from reaching their full potential, says Katherine Evans. Is it time for governance to curb the issue?

Why does the majority of high-vis PPE suck?

There are brands out there flying the flag for sustainable, high quality, ethically produced, inclusive PPE, and yet businesses continue to buy heaps of high-vis landfill fodder that turns to rags in less than five industrial launders. Why are zips breaking, seams splitting, holes tearing, and reflective bands turning grey in the multiple sets of PPE we’re needing to buy each year?

It’s not sustainable, all this dying, making, packaging, shipping, washing, and binning. It doesn’t take an activist to see that. The quality of so much of it being pumped out is absolute dishwater.

Furthermore, it’s not even safe for anyone falling outside of the ‘average-size man’. This personal protective equipment isn’t even fit for purpose before it rips along the crotch. It’s time to take back the personal and the protective in PPE and make it fit for people who aren’t the ‘average size man’ while improving the quality and laundering process to back up claims of green credentials that businesses are making.

I can speak for the 700 plus women in the Bold as Brass tribe (a network I set up to help create equity for women in industry) when I say low-quality, poorly fitting PPE is still a major barrier to women reaching their full potential. I now have very smart PPE gifted to me by James Fuller at Blaklader as part of the Bold as Brass PPE fit and functionality trials. I now turn up to the site looking and feeling like a boss. My head is on the job and the job only, but it wasn’t always like this.

Stopping progress

I’ve had some terrible PPE in my time, or not enough of it because “Women don’t sweat”. (Eye roll). For example, I had a small man’s bomber jacket (I’m 5’ 2”, size 10, narrow frame). The arms so long and with no wrist tighteners they flapped over my hands; a pair of polycotton cargo trousers that I couldn’t lift my leg high enough to get into a Hilux; and a pair of men’s boots so wide and hard I had to clench my toes to stop my feet sliding around. My thoughts were centred entirely on keeping my medium-sized gloves on my extra small hands; my burning feet slipping around my boots, blistering as they lifted in and out, and concentrating on not turning over on my ankles as I stepped over dug rock on-site in my loose, canal boat clown shoes.

Manual handling was a massive challenge – walking was painful and core logging on the floor was almost impossible, making me look disengaged, lazy and uncomfortable on-site as if  I didn’t want to be there, all of which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Eventually, after a while you stop being asked, stop being involved, stop learning, stop progressing and you see male counterparts excelling, being sponsored, being chosen, passing you by and no one stops to question it. It’s another one of those cases where “women just aren’t cut out for this industry” right?

Time for governance?

We’re going to need to look at this as an entire process because it’s not all on the manufacturers. I’ve been sent some brilliant PPE and been involved in its design process. There are ethical people in this industry who really do care about safety and inclusivity. Stockists also play a big role, as do purchasing managers. It turns out you can put a price on safety, and that price roughly equates to what it costs to dress an average-sized man in cheap, unsustainable kit, five teams times a year; instead of once every four. Buying kit that doesn’t fit puts strain on seams, buttons, poppers, zips, and the fabric in the wrong places, causing them to break. It makes no sense –  we are doing this to ourselves with our eyes wide open.

I think it’s time a governing body got involved, such as the British Standards Institution or the Health and Safety Executive, who can lay down a baseline of expectations for kitting out people on-site. PPE needs to be suitable for the task and designed for the person wearing it, it needs to be fit tested and it needs to be sustainable, as do the processes involved in its life cycle, including its disposal.

We can’t continue the way we are, waiting for someone to get seriously injured or worse before we discuss “lessons learned”. Responsibility needs to be taken, and since we haven’t managed to sort this out ourselves over the past decades, we should take a leaf out of the book by the United States Department of Labour, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and go formal so there’s nowhere to hide.

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Wayne David Schofield
Wayne David Schofield
9 months ago

A good article, but this doesn’t just apply to women as suggested.

Suzanne Holt
Suzanne Holt
9 months ago

Katherine later goes on to say: “PPE needs to be suitable for the task and designed for the person wearing it, it needs to be fit tested” – that applies to everyone.

The impact of poor fitting PPE – along with the many other barriers women face adds up to something very significant though.

Katherine Evans
Katherine Evans
9 months ago

Hi Wayne, it’s a shame you’ve read this article as suggesting this only applies to women. I very carefully picked my words as to not say this because I work on raising awareness around the use of ppe designed for average sized men, and also the quality of all PPE, regardless of size and gender. I’ve written from my own perspective and the research I’ve done into women’s PPE, but at no point used the words “only applies to women”. I’m very passionate about equality through equity and hope you can reread the article without a patriarchal lense.

Mark F Bywater
Mark F Bywater
9 months ago

You really shouldn’t have accepted the PPE to start with. If it’s not fit for purpose, and doesn’t fit comfortably, then you shouldn’t wear it. Accepting it and then complaining about it publicly on such a forum is crass and deserves no credit here.
Believing that poorly fitting PPE is the reason for women not achieving their full potential is laughable.
I’m surprised that SHP would support these views of Katherine Voyle, which are questionable to say the least.

Katherine Evans
Katherine Evans
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

Hi Mark, thanks for putting forward your points of view.
You’re clearly very passionate about this subject and I’d really value your thoughts on why you think women aren’t making the top jobs in construction.
Katherine

Mark Glover - SHP Editor
Admin
Mark Glover - SHP Editor
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

Hi Mark, thanks for your comment. At SHP we pride ourselves on being independent and try to garner comment from all. Women in health and safety is one demographic of our readership. We are simply offering a forum for these experiences to be shared, as we do across all topics.

Blaise
Blaise
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

Mark you’ve clearly never had to pick your battles. How nice for you.

Faye
Faye
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

As a woman who has worked in the industry for 30 years sadly your comment does not surprise me and shows a distinct lack of understanding of the issues. Comments such as yours are part of the reason I am writing a book about the issues in construction as it seems many in the industry need to understand the problems women face and work with on a daily basis. Trying to blame women for accepting the only option they are given is just another example of many peoples total ignorance of the issues. This is not a crass article –… Read more »

Kat Parsons
Kat Parsons
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

Having worked as a site engineer on construction sites for over 15 years I would be concerned if you were my H&S manager given this comment. I too experienced having to wear men’s PPE…overalls where the crotch was around my knees, sleeves dangling too long, hi vis vests enormous and flapping, wet weather kit literally drowning me. Yes times have changed and there are new products for women but if employers aren’t procuring them and the culture in the business doesn’t make women to feel safe to speak out…. We ‘put up & shut up’ so as not to be… Read more »

Amy
Amy
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

If you took the time to properly read the article, Mark, you’d see that Katherine clearly explains the impact that poorly fitted PPE had on the ability to carry out work effectively. If you were given tools that were entirely wrong for the job, physically impacted you carrying out the job and no choice but to use them, do you really believe you would operate to your full potential? I’m surprised you so clearly state that such a hinderance caused by something entirely out of Katherine’s control is ‘laughable’. Perhaps your privileged position has allowed you to avoid experiencing the… Read more »

Lisa-Jayne Cook
Lisa-Jayne Cook
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

Oh yes, refusing to work because my PPE doesn’t fit or isn’t comfortable is brilliant, why haven’t I thought of protesting in this way before? The fact we should even have to ask for suitable PPE is a joke. Many of us have purchased our own PPE from outlets just so we can get the job done and remain safe at work. Happy to say I don’t have this issue now, but it is certainly something I’ve had to deal with until recently (not helped by the fact I’m only just over 5’ and petite in frame too). Would be… Read more »

Mica May
Mica May
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

I’m not surprised to read a comment from someone telling us that it’s our fault. Those who never encounter this kind of discrimination are all too happy to blame us. How can we excel if we’re holding up our pants with one hand?
Get with the programme Mark F Bywater… we’re not in the Victorian age any more.

Jo Mullett
Jo Mullett
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

Mr Bywater, you contradicted yourself – if PPE isn’t fit for purpose it is affecting your performance and you can’t achieve your potential, whether you are male or female

shireen
shireen
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

I would like to hear why you find these views ‘questionable and laughable’? The construction industry at large is well known for being patriarchal in its treatment of the women who work in it. Things are starting to change, but slowly, and if we cannot get even the most basic of things right, like PPE that fits and does the job for which it is intended, then what chance do women really have of feeling like we belong in the industry. Women are already often seen as pariahs and outsiders on sites, (don’t get me started on being able to… Read more »

Gemma
Gemma
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

Complaining about women wanting better fitting PPE (noting the implication in the third paragraph that this affects anyone who isn’t the ‘average size man’) to make their job easier and safer is far more crass considering the google definition is:
“Crass: adjective

  1. showing no intelligence or sensitivity.
  2. “the crass assumptions that men make about women” “

Historically there hasn’t been woman specific (or in fact non ‘average size male’ PPE) on the market AT ALL so saying no to the provided, not fit for purpose, PPE hasn’t been an option for many.

Stace Boston
Stace Boston
8 months ago
Reply to  Mark F Bywater

As a trans person finding PPE to fit my changing body shape is hard to find so, in answer to your comment yes it does deter trans people and women from joining the construction industry as a whole. Would you wear ill fitting and uncomfortable clothes especially for 8 hours a day?

Daniel Lewis
Daniel Lewis
9 months ago

Employers have a legal duty to provide, free of charge PPE that is suitable, sufficient and fit for its intended use. That includes ensuring the issued PPE fits properly and is comfortable so as to allow the user to carry our the work effectively and safely. Regardless of the gender of the individual being provided for. The above article and the experince expressed is typical of a patriarchial industry like contsruction. Women have as much to offer to the construction industry as men do if not more.

Nigel Evelyn-dupree
Nigel Evelyn-dupree
9 months ago

Yeah but, no but, what about PPE for Display Screen Operators and, I don’t mean Prosthetic Glasses only prescribed after diagnosis of a significant vision loss, I mean preventative and/or mitigative “effective intervention” directly linked to “Accessibility”?

https://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr561.pdf

https://icd.who.int/browse10/2016/en#/H53.1

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2C1jmwGIsGQ&list=PLezLOQBs0kcn1kCE3A_Jr5eShBiLu3kKy&index=4&t=20s

Ffion Jones
Ffion Jones
9 months ago

In every industry there is an accepted focus on providing the right equipment to enable people to do their jobs effectively. This is no different, this is about ensuring the best people have the right gear to do the best job possible. Simple logic being held up by a system currently not fit for purpose. Here’s to change coming asap.

Amy Roosa
Amy Roosa
9 months ago

Glad to see SHP joining this discussion. While some may believe women are making a bigger issues out of this than it should be. I would challenge them to research just how bad this problem is for women across all industries. From medical, soccer to NASA, improper PPE is not only injuring women but it can also hold them back career wise and there is plenty of data that proves this.

We as EH&S professionals need to stay aware and educated on this issue and be the voice for women that may not feel comfortable speaking up.

Mica May
Mica May
9 months ago

Properly fitting PPE is essential – PPE that doesn’t fit is not fit for purpose, it’s creates a hazard. There are so many ways poorly fitting PPE can endanger health and safety.
We deserve our H&S to be taken as seriously as mens.

John
John
8 months ago

As a Trade Union workplace and H&S rep I’ve been dealing with the issue of poor fitting PPE for years, male and female, the suppliers and moreover manufacturers use the ‘average size man’ because that’s where the bulk of sales will come, as a non-average size man with a disability it’s a huge problem. I buy much of my personal PPE clothing, as against working PPE, from Canada to get the right fit, the quality’s better too. Safety footwear that fit’s costs my employer 3 or 4 times that of basic boot’s, for me, female members of staff might look… Read more »

Andrew Stotesbury
Andrew Stotesbury
8 months ago

Just an item of common PPE: Gloves!
I need a size 10. But often only size 9 provided. I try to provide my own because of this! Also this would be an issue for smaller hands.

L. Duthie
L. Duthie
4 months ago

Mark,

Please do us all a favour and get out of your office and have conversations with people.

Education is clearly something you’re lacking on this subject matter, either that or you’re still wearing your rose-tinted glasses.

Regards,
The Nation.