Women’s PPE And My Experiences of It – Maggie Rawling, HSES Advisor

Whilst working across the UK and New Zealand, I have had the privilege of being exposed to a multitude of sites, work, safety attitudes and social responses to women in the workplace.

One of the more notable experiences I often recall when discussing the topic of ‘women centric’ PPE, is requesting suitable overalls whilst being involved in a major strip out on a site and being met with blank looks, smirks and being asked why I would need overalls. The consensus in the room was that I would not be capable of assisting on site (despite previous engineering experience). When I requested again to have overalls, I was permitted to, but this was met with clear resistance, I was also only permitted to purchase standard men’s overalls, which did not fit me appropriately. As a result, this undermined me in my role as a safety manager in a male dominated site and industry.

When our new PPE supplier created and distributed the company branded jackets and trousers, there was no design available for women. When this was challenged, I was informed that it wasn’t financially viable to provide women’s PPE.

My instant thoughts were: ‘Why isn’t properly protecting me, as a woman, financially viable? If I was harmed due to the under protection / newly introduced hazards due to wearing improperly fitting PPE, the fines would surely outweigh the cost of creating equality.’ This influenced me to consider that maybe in this case, a woman’s life was deemed less valuable than men. This was a recurring theme throughout the rest of my time in this here.

So now, I need safety boots. My options were to buy men’s boots, or unisex boots. Both of which were made to a man’s proportions, meaning my foot was never properly protected inside the boot as women’s centre of balance is very different to a man, our proportions overall are very different for our feet, and remember, women aren’t small men.

The unisex boots were made with less design features and lower quality materials and thus were cheaper. After trailing them, a member of the office team and myself contracted athletes’ foot. After ‘making a fuss’ and suffering a few eyerolls, we were finally able to add women’s boots to our suppliers list, however we were only permitted one style of boots in comparison to the 8 supported on the catalogue for men.

Our gloves only catered to small, medium and large men’s hands, basic, generic, earplugs and generic eyewear were supplied on site, off of which are designed from the proportions of a white European male.

After I reflected on this over the course of a few months, I started to investigate the ‘why’s’.

Why isn’t there much women’s PPE as standard?

Women’s PPE creation comes with a cost implication, standardised sizing and design has not yet been embedded into manufacturers repertoires, women are still in the foundation stages of entering male dominated environments and often don’t know there is a difference in PPE design so fail to identify the need for it, or feel they cant ask due to the culture in the workplace, or their age meaning they may not be established enough yet to know how to navigate this situation.

Financial pressures also dictated my approach in this situation, I should have women’s PPE, it exists but it wasn’t seen as necessary. So, if I wanted to make a change, I needed to do this thoughtfully. As a result, I approached senior management and our CEO with a case study to identify why this is so important to me and should be to them.

Why is there resistance to change?

I believe we have already covered to some extent, that there is a resistance to provide the PPE due to financial implications, a lack of understanding of why its important to provide it, a disbelief that men and women need specific PPE, a resistance to women in male dominated environments and a slow move in social culture.

It has been my general understanding that if you haven’t had a need go unfulfilled, or you’ve never needed to be aware of something, then how would you ever identify there is a gap to plug?

And why does this matter so much to me?

It matters because I need to be safe, I need to feel safe, and I should be valued equally. One of the core topics of interest to me in this case, was dignity. It looked and felt undignified to roll up all my sleeves and trouser legs, wearing 2 pairs of socks with my boots year-round, have glasses sliding off my face and gloves that affect the dexterity of my hands.

The most poignant point I had to make was dignity.

If I needed to use the toilet while in PPE, how do I do this in a way that differs to the general male experience? Well first of all I either have to take off my boots and stand with my socks on the floor, to remove my overalls to use the facilities or engage with feminine hygiene products, or I could undo the overalls and take them off past my waist where they will trail on the toilet floor. In a best-case scenario, the toilets would be clean and germs free, however in a workplace where there are few women, the ladies’ toilets aren’t always just used by the ladies…

And finally, the time it takes to get undressed and dressed again opened criticism on how long toilet trips would take.

I contacted our PPE supplier, who indicated they were able to provide female tailored jackets and trousers, but we would have to pay for the entire design fee, and a higher cost to purchase due to a lack of demand from my company. What was shocking about this, was the PPE we were being supplied, was already available to women by them, in a different industry. So, at every level, I was beginning to feel discouraged. I tried to discuss this with my company but was met with disinterest.

Fortunately, I never gave up, and after moving industries, I was able to begin to introduce women’s PPE to my new workplace. Middlesbrough College are now introducing women’s specific overalls from 3 Donkeys, a UK supplier who provide overalls tailored to women’s bodies and zip off at the waist. This brings all female students in line with their male peers, provides ultimate dignity and prepares them for a future where they can challenge a lack of representation.

Maggie Rawling is an HSES Advisor, 2019 Runner up LPG Woman of the Year and Advocate for PPE and workwear for women.

To find out more about HSE People’s campaign ‘PPE for All’ please get in touch info@hsepeople.com