Skanska is Designing its Own Women’s Workwear

Jarrett Milligan, Vice President Skanska

Worried about the safety implications for female site workers being required to wear PPE designed for men, Jarrett Milligan, vice president for EHS at Skanska USA, challenged manufacturers to produce a hi-vis vest designed for the real women in his company. In the second part of a series on ill-fitting PPE, Lucy Barnard discovers how he achieved this and what more employers need to do to ensure every worker has PPE that fits.

For Mindy Uber, a senior environmental health and safety director at Skanska USA, being jerked back by her oversized hi-vis vest when it caught on door handles was a frequent annoyance.

Like all visitors and workers on US construction sites, Uber was required to wear a fluorescent yellow vest over her clothing to ensure she was visible to construction teams and to keep her safe.

However, as Uber and several other female workers at Skanska pointed out, although the vests ordered by the company and issued to all Skanska USA staff with the ability to go into the field were described as “unisex,” they were actually designed for men.

Eventually, in 2018, Jarrett Milligan, a vice president of environmental health and safety at Skanska, and a former Damage Controlman in the United States Navy, who works to oversee the company’s environmental, health, and safety programme for the northeast region’s building operations, took up the cause.

“During my career, I have had to order and hand female employees PPE that is designed and manufactured for men. Gloves fit long fingers and large palms; vests are made for taller and wider frames,” Milligan says. “Long and baggy vests are more likely to catch or snag on handrails, doors, and equipment. If gloves are too large, an individual’s dexterity is reduced, and they cannot properly grasp things.”

But when Milligan started looking into buying a better-fitting vest for the company’s female employees, he found few products available.

“At that time, female PPE was available on the market, but it was not widely ordered or used,” Milligan says. Moreover, he points out that the hi-vis vests specifically marketed at women lacked many features available in the unisex vests the company was already ordering, such as extra pockets or a microphone clip.

“We brought in a whole group of our female leaders, from our executive level all the way down through the field engineers, and we said, what works for you and what doesn’t?” Milligan says. “Then we went to one of our vendors, Colony Hardware in New York, and we spent some time listing all the things that we felt were a problem. We gave them a challenge and said let’s bring all your major manufacturers together in a room and see what they can do for us.”

Colony agreed and sent samples of vests and gloves, which Milligan asked 25 women from Skanska’s New York office and jobsites to trial. He also took them to Skanska’s Seattle and Boston offices for staff to comment on, as well as the company’s national EHS team.

The Skanska teams then listed what they considered the best features of a variety of different vests and challenged the manufacturers to produce a new, specially designed vest that included all of them.

“We gave every manufacturer a shot to say, hey, this is what I can do, and a few of them came back with prototypes, which we tested,” Milligan adds. “Eventually, we landed on Radians.”

US manufacturer Radians agreed to mass produce the two vests resulting from the process and, crucially, to sell them to Skanska at the same price as the equivalent unisex vest it was already producing, on the understanding that Skanska would purchase the vests for the majority of its 1,200 female US staff.

“I don’t know the exact number of vests we’ve ordered, but it has to be in the thousands by now,” says Milligan. “We tend to supply PPE vests for our own workers [free of charge], and then we’ve had Colony make it available in our online store so we could share it with subcontractors and self-employed craft.”

Radians now stocks the Skanska-designed ladies’ vests and sells them at the same price as the equivalent men’s vests.

“It feels like better-fitting clothing, which always makes me feel better,” says Uber. “I feel more confident when I walk out on the jobsite and that I belong here. I don’t have to worry about my vest flapping around or looking like I’m wearing something that was not meant for me.”

“What’s most important is that industry-wide, more vendors other than Radians are starting to manufacture female PPE,” adds Uber. “Other vendors are starting to listen to that feedback, so there are others around the country where we can purchase vests and other women’s PPE.”

Certainly, Skanska is not alone. UK-based contractor BAM Nuttall has been rolling out a range of workwear specifically designed for women since 2015 after undertaking trials with PPE manufacturers Arco and Onsite Support at its worksites in London, Leeds, Newcastle, and Scotland.

Women’s PPE available through the BAM Site Direct portal includes hi-vis vests, polo shirts, rain jackets, hi-vis trousers, safety boots, and gloves as well as hi-vis maternity wear and modesty tunics.

And in 2023, French contractor Bouygues launched its new inclusive PPE range in partnership with OnSite Support, which includes female alternatives as well as maternity-specific safety clothing.

Lawmakers too are tightening the rules to require employers to provide correctly fitting safety gear and protective clothing for all workers.

In July 2023, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it was proposing to amend its PPE requirements for construction to explicitly state that all safety gear used on-site must properly fit.

In the UK, the most recent Health & Safety Executive (HSE) regulations state that equipment must be provided to workers free of charge. Rules require that selected PPE suits the worker, considering the size, fit, compatibility, and weight of the PPE and the physical characteristics of the wearer. “Modifying PPE to fit is not a suitable solution,” it adds. Some MPs are calling for these rules to be changed further to specifically mention women.

The European Parliament is also considering a review of its PPE requirements after a study found that most European harmonised standards failed to adequately consider all people’s body dimensions.

Despite these advances, many women say there is still a long way to go.

“I think we need to have more options available for women,” says Uber. “Right now, there may be one or two female vests available for women, but there are probably fifty for men.”

“From a manufacturer’s point of view, it’s a risk,” Uber adds. “It’s an expense for them to run a whole different product line for women. They’re investing a lot, hoping there’s a market on the other side to purchase it. At Skanska USA, around 20% of our employees are female, but for other employers that might be just buying for one woman out of a hundred, it’s harder to demonstrate the demand.”

Milligan admits that Skanska USA still has a long way to go to provide a broader range of women’s PPE. The company has been working with glove manufacturers to get a smaller pair of gloves made and is looking into different sizes of safety glasses. The company is also looking at adding a newer style women’s safety boot to its store, although he points out that in the USA, workers are usually required to pay for their own footwear. Maternity wear or specialist clothing for menopausal women or to protect ethnic minorities would have to be ordered on a case-by-case basis, he says.

“We are relying on people to speak up if they have any concerns,” says Uber. “We have our safety people on projects interacting with folks, and the superintendents are here to listen, so I think we’ve got some pretty good advocates in the field.”

A 2024 survey of 1,444 engineers from the Women’s Engineering Society found that just 4% of women and 16% of men reported that their PPE fitted them perfectly. Another 44% of men and 23% of women said their PPE fitted quite well. On the other hand, 35% of women and 12% of men said their PPE didn’t fit at all or fitted badly.

It found that 32% of respondents did not raise concerns about ill-fitting PPE at all, and of the 68% who did raise concerns, less than a tenth said their concerns had been fully addressed.

Moreover, the WES found that although the amount and variety of PPE on the market is increasing, many workers are not able to access it.

One reason for this is that most large employers acquire company PPE through arrangements with specific wholesalers, meaning that, in practice, staff can only select PPE via a catalogue or specific company-branded online store. These catalogues are often limited or provide no choice for women’s PPE and provide no size guide, making it hard to understand what ‘small’ or ‘medium’ really mean.

WES chief executive Elizabeth Donnelly says a lack of standard, international, and reliable female clothes sizing makes it harder for manufacturers to explain female sizes simply.

To combat this, WES proposes to collect thousands of real-life measurements from its members and other PPE-wearing women, which it plans to make available to PPE manufacturers so they can base meaningful and universal women’s PPE sizing on them. At the same time, the organisation plans to bring together a steering group of women who wear PPE to help inform designs, requesting items such as larger pockets and more breathable fabrics.

Amy Roosa, Founder of The Safety Rack

“At the moment, women’s PPE is almost an untapped market,” says Donnelly. “If we can get enough big employers on board – large contractors or the armed forces – and show that there is sufficient demand, for a manufacturer there has got to be a big advantage to being one of the first into that market. Then companies will say go to this manufacturer because we know the PPE fits.”

Amy Roosa, chief executive of The Safety Rack, a US-based website which tries out and compares women’s PPE, agrees. “I believe there is a disconnect in communication between manufacturers, distributors, and employers,” she says. “Distributors need to be presenting these brands to employers, but if employers never bring up needing women’s PPE, it’s not going to be mentioned.”

“Awareness is key right now,” she adds. “We need employers to be more aware and prepared to support workers with proper PPE.”