Have you ever worn shoes that were too large for your feet? Did you feel uncomfortable, and stumble frequently? Did you find it difficult to walk around? Most people would agree that wearing improperly sized shoes, pants, gloves, or hats makes moving around uncomfortable. What if doing this was a part of your job? What if by agreeing to wear these oversized accessories you put yourself at risk for accident or injury? For many women in construction, factories, laboratories, and other fields that require the regular use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) these What Ifs are a reality.
Women and men are different. Biologically, our bodies are not the same. In most workplaces, this is not an issue, but in facilities where PPE is required, problems arise. Men outnumber women in many of the jobs that require PPE. According to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) study, women comprised only 1% of the construction workforce in 1970. In the more recent 1995 study, women made up 2.3% of the construction workforce. Studies indicate that the number of women in construction continues to grow, but the problem of ill-fitting PPE persists.
Even with the growth in numbers, the relatively few women on each job site makes it difficult for employers to balance the need for PPE for women and the need to keep their costs down. However, OSHA states that by not providing adequate PPE for women, they are putting women at risk for injury, and potentially losing money paying for medical treatment. According to a 2006 research report conducted by the Canadian Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA) and the Ontario Women’s Directorate (OWD), PPE customized for women is a growing need. The IAPA and OWD worked to establish a plan of action to provide better PPE for Canadian women workers. The research study also pointed out the hazards of lack of PPE or the use of poorly fitted PPE for women.
Almost all studies on PPE for women in non-traditional occupations include, at least one participant, who claimed she “made do” with men’s sizes and styles of PPE. Why won’t this work? See the picture of a woman’s and man’s work boot of supposedly comparable size. The man’s shoe is 2 inches longer, and the sole of the shoe is 1/2 inch wider. While the arch curves further in from the side to support the shape of a man’s foot, it does not arch upwards to provide support for a woman’s, usually higher arch. The inaccurate fit can make work much more difficult and uncomfortable, but most importantly, work becomes more dangerous.
So what can you do? If you’re interested in a non-traditional profession, insist on equipment that fits properly. Don’t accept or make do with equipment for men that could put your health at risk. Many unions and employers have funding available for personal protective equipment, and are required by OSHA to provide required PPE for all employees. Make sure that you know your options for obtaining PPE that works for you, and that you find suitable solutions that keep you safe and keep you covered.