The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 800K women were employed in the construction industry in 2010, making up approximately 9% of the total construction workforce. Of those 800K, only 200K women were in production roles such as laborers, electricians, and plumbers.
Why are so few women pursuing careers in this field compared to other industries? The answer may lie in a higher prevalence of health and safety hazards, and one way to eliminate this barrier is the use of proper personal protective equipment and clothing (PPE/PPC). In recognition of this need, the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) and Ontario Women’s Directorate completed a Change Agent Project in 2006 and published a list of female PPE manufacturers. However, with the construction industry still being a male-dominated arena, female construction workers may find their employers taking a one-size-fits-all approach to PPE/PPC.
Improperly fitting PPE/PPC is downright dangerous. If a hardhat is too big, it won’t stay on. If pant legs are too long, they run the risk of getting caught in equipment. If safety goggles aren’t snug, they cease to be safe. All construction workers – male or female – should insist on testing their employer-provided PPE/PPC and report any fitting issues, defects, or damage. Below is a list of common PPE/PPC and quick tips for ensuring correct fit.
Confirm that your hardhat stays on when you bend over, but isn’t so tight that it leaves marks on your face. For sizing, determine the circumference of your skull by wrapping measuring tape around your head slightly above your ears.
Foam earplugs are more likely to fit women better than those made of less flexible material. Earplugs should be comfortable enough to wear through a shift, yet provide a tight seal within the canal.
Pay close attention to fit around the eye, bridge of the nose, and temple. Make sure there are no gaps in the seals, even with the straps pulled as tightly as possible and without distorting your vision or hurting your face.
According to Grainger, “the only way to accurately select the correct respirator size is by doing respirator fit testing.” Additionally, those who are used to buying smaller-sized hardhats and eyewear should also expect to need smaller-sized respirators.
Don’t cut corners by simply rolling up the sleeves or pant legs of PPC that is too big. Most manufacturers provide a size chart for their PPC, so be sure to review it carefully (and consider underclothing) prior to purchase/use.
Well-fitting safety gloves will leave no skin exposed and allow for a safe grip. Use your dominant hand’s finger length, width, and palm circumference to determine the right size.
Gender-specific fall harnesses are particularly important. Men and women differ significantly in chest, hip, and thigh measurements, and fall harnesses that are too big or too small are very dangerous. Follow the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health’s guidelines for selecting a full-body harness.
Every construction worker faces safety risks. However, there are issues unique to women, including but not limited to proper PPE/PPC. Be proactive, know your sizes, and be assertive with your employer. For more data and resources, check out OSHA’s Women in Construction website.