PPE and women: 13 do’s and don’ts

The recent cancellation by NASA of the highly publicized first-ever all-woman spacewalk is a good reminder of the importance of proper fitting PPE. Even with extensive training on the ground, getting the right fit for a spacesuit in microgravity can be a challenge since the body changes slightly in space due to fluid shifts or spine elongation.

Only one suit for a medium-size torso, which is the size that best fits the two astronauts, is ready for use on the station. While the decision was made by one of the astronauts who thought a large-size suit would be fine, but after a spacewalk a week earlier decided the medium-size was a better fit, it was met by some with disbelief on Twitter. The number of women entering traditionally male-dominated fields continues to grow and many have encountered improperly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal protective clothing (PPC). (The two female astronauts were part of a class that had 50/50 gender representation.)

According to The Washington Post, “Across social media platforms, women told of giant overalls, wading boots that were the wrong size, oversize gloves that kept them from being nimble, a lack of bulletproof vests that accommodated their chest sizes and a dearth of petite-size personal protective equipment at construction sites.”

While there is increased awareness and significant strides have been made in PPE for women, the fact remains that most PPE was designed based on average male body measurements and it has only been in recent years that manufacturers have tailored PPE to women. When there are products specifically designed for women some worksites just don’t have them readily available.

The best practices of providing PPE for women are very similar to those for men. Here are 13 do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t assume your PPE is appropriate for all of your employees. Find out what is and isn’t working by getting feedback from employees. Monitor the use and identify situations where it is not used when it should be.
  • Don’t ask women to wear PPE that is too big. It is not going to provide adequate protection and in some cases creates even more serious safety risks.
  • Don’t alter PPE. It should be certified to specific standards, and alterations beyond built-in adjustment features can make the garment no longer compliant – and unsafe.
  • Don’t subject women to derogatory remarks or disingenuous humor about how they look in PPE.
  • Don’t assume women are only concerned about “how it looks.”
  • Don’t criticize, ignore, or retaliate against employees who report ill-fitting PPE.
  • Don’t penalize employees who refuse to work when appropriate PPE is not available.
  • Do involve employees in the selection of PPE.
  • Do provide the same range of sizes for women as for men, and ensure suppliers have properly assessed the appropriateness of their equipment to women and men.
  • Do ensure employees try on several sizes or types of PPE before it is issued to ensure the best fit.
  • Do educate employees about why the PPE is to be worn and train how to properly use it.
  • Do make appropriate provisions for pregnant women.
  • Do get supervisor buy-in.

The gender pay gap is substantially less in many non-traditional jobs than in other professions, and training and apprenticeships present great opportunities for women. Yet, as noted in the Construction Productivity Blog, “recruitment bias, company cultures where harassment isn’t thoroughly addressed and even reasons as simple as tools and gear not made for women in mind, also all play a critical role into why more women aren’t considering building as a career.”

Attracting women to non-traditional fields can help industries deal with an acute labor shortage and have economic benefits. According to the Peterson Institute, construction companies that were in the top 25% in gender diversity of their workforce were 46% more likely to outperform their industry average. Providing the right PPE is another way companies can recruit and retain more female talent.

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