Historically, PPE has been designed with a man’s body size and shape in mind. But whenSafety+Health reached out to the International Safety Equipment Association regarding progress on designing personal protective equipment for women, manufacturers’ representatives were quick to respond.
“When it comes to safety equipment, one size and style does not fit all,” said Katie Mielcarek, marketing manager for Cleveland-based Gateway Safety Inc. “With women making up a greater share of the workforce, manufacturers who are tailoring PPE products to the fit and style preferences of women are ahead of the game.”
Here, PPE manufacturing insiders describe the risks female workers face when asked to wear PPE designed for men, what manufacturers are doing to answer the call for women’s PPE, and what safety professionals and workers should know.
“In the past, it was common practice for women to be given the standard PPE that was originally developed for the predominately male industrial workforce,” noted Melissa Gerhardt, product manager for FR work wear and arc flash PPE for Cleveland-based National Safety Apparel.
This can put women at risk of injury. “PPE traditionally designed for the dimensions of an average male worker means that female workers are apt to rely on PPE that is too large or disproportioned,” Shari Franklin Smith, senior technical service specialist for food, beverage and agriculture/oil and gas, petrochem industries for 3M; and Laurie Wells, senior regulatory affairs specialist at the St. Paul, MN-based company, wrote in a joint email to S+H. “Literally, from head to toe, ill-fitting PPE can cause safety hazards: reduced dexterity from oversized gloves, baggy coveralls catching on equipment, tripping because footwear or shoe covers are too large.”
Women often have issues regarding the fit of hard hats, according to Mary Padron, MarCom and event specialist for Memphis-based Radians. Padron pointed out that hard hats can be too big for the heads of most women, and that a loose-fitting hard hat can obstruct a woman’s vision if it slips off her head. In addition, “If it falls off, it puts the female worker in danger of getting hit by a falling object,” she said.
Exclusively for women
Manufacturers have taken note of the need for PPE designed exclusively for women. “More women are working in the safety industry than ever before, and as we continue to advocate for all people with special fit and function needs, we can continue to push innovation and make the workplace safer for everyone,” Stacy Klausing, PPE project manager, and Jill Kirby, laboratory manager for Louisville, KY-based ArcWear, wrote in a joint email to S+H.
Klausing and Kirby noted that most “major players” in the flame-resistant market offer a selection of PPE for women, including stretch FR jeans, ballistic vests and FR bras.
Additionally, standards are being revised to reflect the needs of smaller-sized people.
“Two recently revised ANSI/ISEA PPE standards have included changes to requirements that previously hindered access to well-fitting PPE by smaller people,” said Jud Crosby, technical director at Woodstock, GA-based ERB Safety. Crosby added that, by making standards less design-restrictive, “suppliers are given the ability to provide more appropriately sized products for women who tend to be smaller than their male counterparts.”
According to Tamatha Jefferson, garment product manager for MCR Safety of Collierville, TN, when manufacturers make more color- and size-friendly options for women, women benefit. “Reductions of injury rates for women can be reduced by simply taking advantage of more functional and fashionable PPE,” Jefferson said.
When women don’t have properly fitting protective equipment, they may be tempted to alter the PPE they’re using. This should never be done. “If PPE is certified to a particular standard, the garment is tested in the way it is intended to be worn,” cautioned Megan Tansom, senior product specialist for Ergodyne in St. Paul, MN. “If women are manipulating a garment to improve its fit – perhaps by tying or cutting the extra fabric – the garment may no longer be compliant, which puts their safety at risk.”
It’s important that employers keep all workers in mind when selecting PPE, said Brad Witt, director of hearing conservation at Smithfield, RI-based Howard Leight by Honeywell. “Safety programs are so immersed in systems and processes that it can be easy to forget that the first ‘P’ in PPE still stands for ‘personal,’” Witt remarked, adding that workplaces that offer only one size or style of protection as a way to streamline their safety processes undermine their own protection efforts.
Joe Milot Jr., senior product manager for Latham, NY-based Protective Industrial Products Inc., echoed Witt’s opinion. “Finding the appropriate sizes of PPE to properly outfit the entire workforce should be a key component of any safety program,” Milot said.
Ultimately, offering PPE that accommodates all workers is the right thing to do. “All workers, male or female, deserve PPE that fits properly,” Tansom said.