PPE for Women

I read a lot of safety stuff (I know I need a life). Along the way I even come across some really interesting stuff or even better yet someone sends it to me. This weeks topic was the suggestion of a colleague, who forwarded me a paper written by the Industrial Accident Prevention Association called ?PPE for Women? (check out www.iapa.ca/pdf/2006_ppe_women.pdf if you want to see the full article). Anyway the IAPA have graciously allowed me to paraphrase some of what they wrote for this article.

I can hear ya now, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for women, it?s about time! Actually PPE for women has been around for a while, just not much of it and usually not really designed for them. PPE is our last line of protection against hazards in the workplace, and lack of proper PPE for anyone, not just women can be a real safety issue. For women in particular this is a problem as most of the PPE is designed for us big burly manly types. Now, historically this has not been a big issue but over the last 20-30 years we have seen a huge jump of women in the workforce and given our job market out here in the West we are seeing them in increasingly nontraditional roles.

I think I have lost count of the number of different training programs or apprentice programs that are actively recruiting women to these occupations. Labour demands and certainly pay are two powerful motivators for women to get involved in these roles. However, while they have been joining the workforce in these new roles, manufacturers of safety equipment have been slower meeting the demand for their safety equipment. Some manufacturers on the other hand have been embracing the chance to develop and market their wares to the women though and if you want to take a moment at the IAPA site you can find a list of such manufacturers.

As most of us know PPE is not really a hazard control, rather it is meant to provide some protection after all the other hazard controls have been put in place and to limit the amount of damage we may do to ourselves. Proper PPE is critical in these situations, it needs to be suitable to the job, and it needs to fit properly! Now, I am not always the brightest guy, but I did happen to notice quite early in my life that them girls, they are built differently than us guys. It stands to reason that if they are built differently then odds are equipment built for me will not necessarily fit them, but unfortunately for most women the equipment designers have not figured this out yet and hence women are often stuck trying to make our PPE work for them with mixed results.

Indeed throughout life and continued experimentation I have discovered that women are different in a number of fascinating ways. For instance their foot is usually shorter and narrower than ours, and here is a good one, there body is usually shorter as well, which means that mens coveralls are too long in the torso. Have you happened to notice that their shoulders are narrower as well which makes the sleeves of our coveralls too long. Oh oh, I might get hit after this one, but you women also have wider hips, again a fit issue. I have discovered as well that a women?s hands a smaller than ours, they have narrower fingers and a smaller palm, so often a men?s small size glove does not fit. Finally most women have smaller heads and face than us blokes and that can affect the fit of hard hats, eye protection, face protection, and respiratory protection. As I said fascinating discovering all this.

Here are some examples for you:

Safety googles: Women who wear safety goggles often have problems with fit and comfort, especially the ?one size fits all? variety. However, this is one area that is improving rapidly as increasingly manufacturers are making more variety in glasses and women can usually find a pair these days that will fit.

Ear Protection: There are two types of hearing protection (ear muffs & ear plugs) and if fitted properly they work well for both men and women. Most women seem to favor the disposable foam type ear plugs though (less size issues) and women with small ears have great difficulties using them. Likewise one issue with the ear muffs has to do with using them with hard hats as a number of women have reported balance issues which can lead to muscle fatigue and headaches.

Hard hats: Often a critical component of PPE for most job sites. Much progress has been made here, especially since the early 90?s when the CSA changed the standards to make hard hats more friendly for all.

Gloves: Perhaps the biggest problem area for women in the workforce, men?s gloves just don?t cut it. Ill fitting gloves don?t provide adequate protection, especially when handling power tools, knives, welding torches, heavy materials, or hazardous materials such as acids or corrosives. Yet, most workplaces just order there gloves from the catalogue and only order mens sizes so women are forced to make do.

Footwear: Work shoes/boots are designed to protect against the most common types of injuries. Again there has been great strides in this area but many women still have to use mens boots which means that they are at a greater chance of trips, slips, and falls, as well as suffering from blisters, burning soles, and sore feet.

Coveralls: these are commonly worn on a number of jobs and provide protection from a number of hazards. Gender differences in body shape mean that women wearing mens coveralls have fit issues (too tight in some areas and too looses in others) and this can lead to restrictions in movement which could easily become a safety issue.

Anyway the point all this is that we need to be aware when buying safety gear for our employees that we consider the needs of all our workers and buy the right stuff for the right people. If you have any questions about where to buy safety gear for women check out www.iapa.ca/pdf/2006_directory_ppe_women.pdf

Stay safe and I will talk to you again next week.


Rob Mandeville is a Safety Advisor and Auditor at Action Health & Safety Services. He has his OH&S certificate from the UofA, and is currently studying for his CRSP ( Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professional) exams. If you have a question about health and safety or an idea for an article you can reach him at rob.mandeville@actionservices.ca