By Desiree Hlubi, Brand Manager at Sisi Safety Wear
Notorious for workplace accidents and injuries on the job, construction is a risky business. Between working at heights, operating heavy machinery and hard physical labour, there is a lot of room for things to go wrong. While Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is designed to counter many of the hazards involved in construction, most safety wear is generally designed to fit and protect the male physique. As more women enter the construction, mining and engineering fields there is a growing need to reassess PPE by acknowledging the differences between the male and female anatomy and providing safety wear specifically designed to cater for these differences. The right PPE will not only protect female workers from injury but can save their lives too.
Safety first, for men and women
Employers have a duty to ensure a safe working environment. Part of this obligation includes a duty to ensure that PPE provided is fit for purpose, delivering a level of protection that matches the risk at hand. Accordingly, procurement managers and safety officers have a duty to provide PPE that meets the needs of each and every member of their workforce. Ordering men’s PPE in smaller sizes, or so-called ‘unisex’ PPE is not enough to fulfil this duty. This can only be done by providing PPE that properly caters to the female form so that women enjoy the same benefits as men – the highest level of protection against health and safety risks, without the need to compromise on comfort.
Physiological differences impact PPE effectiveness
One of the most effective ways to make previously male-dominated industries more inclusive with immediate effect is to provide the correct PPE for women. Unisex PPE does not suitably fit female workers, but this is not a case of preference in comfort or fit, but rather a safety hazard. In fact, it is such a huge safety concern that it can be said that issuing women with PPE that does not fit correctly is on the same level as not providing any PPE at all.
Experiencing risk differently
Where there is a fall risk, such as working at heights, this danger is not the same for men and women. Unlike men, the risk of injury for women does not end when the fall is arrested. The polyester webbing typical to men’s fall arrest harnesses can cause secondary injury to the female wearer when placed below the bust area. This is because it can ride up and over the bust with force at the end of a fall. As such, it is necessary for women working at heights to wear PPE specifically designed for the female bust where the polyester chest strap webbing is replaced with an elasticated webbing that stretches in the event of a fall. This relieves the pressure on the bust area, reducing the risk of secondary injury. Of further importance for female safety is PPE fit. An adjustable chest strap makes provision for well-endowed women to position the strap in a way that provides comfort without unavoidably accentuating or placing strain on physical assets. In this way, fall arrest PPE specifically designed for the physical needs of women can play a major role in enhancing confidence and productivity in the workplace.
Another example of physiological inadequacy can be seen clearly in safety footwear. Given the differences between the male and female foot, wearing men’s safety footwear isn’t just ineffective for women, it’s a safety hazard. The sizing does not translate, and a woman’s foot inside a man’s shoe will slide and experience side-to-side movement that can cause long term damage through calf and hip injuries.
Addressing gender equality in PPE
The limited availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for women is a critical workplace health and safety issue that must urgently be addressed by safety and procurement officers. It should not be treated as an additional administrative burden, but rather as a necessary step in ensuring that every member of the workforce is provided with suitable, fit-for-purpose protective gear. From a procurement perspective, there is simply no excuse to continue overlooking the PPE needs of women in the workplace and where it is not yet freely available, women in the workforce should know that they have the right to request the procurement of personal protective equipment that is designed to tick all the right boxes for their specific physique, ensuring safety without compromising on comfort and fit.