Piling Canada

Growing an Inclusive Workforce

Starting with safe and functional PPE for women
Written by Deb Draper
June 2023

As the construction industry continues to search for ways to attract more women into the workforce, a recent report by the CSA Group, a North American leader in standards research, development, education and advocacy, provides insight into how this might be achieved. 

The report “Canadian Women’s Experience with Personal Protective Equipment in the Workplace” concluded that many women in the workplace, including in the construction industry, experience increased safety risks because of poor-fitting or inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Not only is this situation unacceptable from a safety perspective, but it could also signal that women are not valuable or genuinely welcome in the industry. 

Of the approximately 3,000 women surveyed who are currently working in fields such as construction, natural resources and emergency services, 50 per cent say their provided PPE doesn’t fit properly, 43 per cent say it is uncomfortable to wear and 37 per cent say their PPE is unreliable. More than one-third report that the PPE they use is designed for men, and 85 per cent report having been hampered at work by their PPE. Approximately half of those surveyed indicate that they must adjust their PPE each time they put it on or at least once per shift, and 40 per cent have experienced an injury or incident that they relate directly to the fit of their PPE. 

PPE fit issues for women

Regarding respirators, fit and comfort are two of the most important parameters when considering design and usage. Research in 2010 found that gender affects face size and shape more than race or ethnicity. Even slight variations in individual head shape, size and features can result in improper fit and inadequate protection from contaminated air. Respirators must be fit-tested for maximum efficiency and safety and not simply available in a few generic sizes manufactured to male specifications.

“Not only are there issues with respirators, but also with other PPE, such as coveralls that are too long, impeding going up and down ladders and posing a tripping hazard,” said Jennifer Teague, vice president, Standards Research and Planning, CSA Group. “Protective clothing must have a functional fit that allows for freedom of movement, maximizing the worker’s range and extent of movement. And this requires that body shape and other anthropometric dimensions are taken into account.” 

“Women are not just scaled-down versions of men. PPE needs to be designed with everyone in mind.”

Jennifer Teague, CSA Global Group

Work boots are another potential hazard for women. When women wear men’s boots, their feet shift inside, creating hot spots that can lead to blisters. In addition, women’s feet and ankles are often smaller than men’s, which makes it difficult to tighten the laces sufficiently to secure their foot in the shoe.

“Employers need to consider the implications of workers using ill-fitting PPE. Not only can this pose significant safety risks, but from a productivity point of view, it can also make it slower and more difficult for a worker to perform tasks. When using loose-fitting PPE, workers repeatedly stop to make adjustments or try to perform tasks while wearing, for example, gloves that are too large, risking getting them caught in machinery,” Teague said.

Developing PPE sizing for women

One of the key findings of this research is that anthropometric differences exist between the sexes, yet most PPE standards and manufacturers’ designs continue to be based on male fit. 

“Women are not just scaled-down versions of men,” said Teague. “PPE needs to be designed with everyone in mind. This is why developing best practices is so important and can help in the transition from ‘one size fits all’ to more inclusive PPE.” 

To that end, the report identified the critical need for good quality anthropometric data representative of the contemporary working population and consistent PPE regulation across Canada that explicitly and intentionally address the needs of women in the workplace. The report said, “Despite early efforts of researchers and advocates, and evidence that poorly designed and poorly fitting PPE may lead to serious injury or death, women continue to be differentially impacted by chemical, physical and biological exposures in the workplace. Sex and gender need to be, without delay, mainstreamed into all aspects of [Occupational Health and Safety] legislation, policy, standards development and practice.”

Industry driving change for a safe and inclusive work culture

Now more than ever, every employer must recognize the importance of inclusivity in their workforce, and PPE is an essential part of the issue. Improperly fitting PPE jeopardizes safety on the jobsite and sends a message that women are not valued or wanted in the skilled trades. To attract more women, the industry must turn around this perception by looking at the kind of equipment provided and how well it protects the people using it. 

“Employers can make well-fitting PPE part of their safety program, and they can make workers aware of where to find products because there are some out there. A lot of work needs to be done, but once employers are aware of the issue, they can help ensure their workers not only have and use PPE, but also understand the importance of it being well-fitted,” Teague said. “This will help drive demand and encourage manufacturers to develop better-fitting and better-performing PPE for women.”

Providing a wide variety of PPE sizes designed to fit men and women is an effective way for companies to welcome more women into the workforce. Growing a more inclusive workplace culture is essential, and never more than today, as the construction industry grapples with increasing worker shortages and challenges.  

Category: Safety

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

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