Workplace Safety

Women in Construction Gear Up for Safety

Protective gear sized for men puts women at risk for injury in construction and many other trades.
By: | April 13, 2018

More women may now be working on construction job sites, but many still have a problem getting work clothes to adequately fit them or properly sized safety gear like harnesses and eye protection.

The issue has become such a concern that educating construction companies about it is part of a joint educational effort by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Association of Women in Construction.

As part of their five-year alliance to promote safe and healthful working conditions for female construction workers within the industry, the two entities are focusing on specific safety hazards women face if they aren’t outfitted with well-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE).

Across the industry, the problem is now widespread, said Houston-based Scott Lassila, managing consultant and construction risk control thought leader with Aon Global Risk Consulting.

“The paradigm is starting to shift. Years ago, on a 500-person project, you may have had just five to ten women working; but it’s amazing how many women you are seeing now,” Lassila said.

“They are also involved in the crafts — welders, pipefitters, electricians, equipment operators, the whole gamut — and construction companies need to make sure they are getting the right PPE for women working on their crew and [ensuring that] it fits them properly.”

One example of a potential hazard arises when construction companies provide one-size-fits all safety glasses, even though women’s facial features are so much smaller than men’s features, Lassila said.

Some of his construction clients are starting to realize they need to make adjustments, and they are using several different types of safety eye-wear and making those available for the women working with them.

“When employers take the time to ask questions and provide workers with a few options in the selection process, they can bridge this gap and make for better-fitting PPE.” — Geffrey Price, construction industry practice leader, Marsh Risk Consulting

Another problem involves flame-resistant clothing, he said. Historically, women in construction were buying men’s clothing. But the sleeves were longer and the pants didn’t fit correctly.

Many companies also furnish safety vests and harnesses for fall protection to female workers, but the size is a men’s small, which may not be small enough for some women.

“That’s one of the things you’ve really got to be careful of when fitting women with fall protection, because if it doesn’t fit, women can come out of it in the event of a fall and get seriously hurt or even killed,” Lassila said.

Some manufacturers are now making harnesses that are even smaller, like the Miss Miller harness, which can come in double extra small for even the smallest female worker, he said.

While companies typically order boxes of clothing and safety gear in small, medium, large and extra-large sizes, those standard sizes “don’t always fit the bill for female workers,” said Geffrey Price, construction industry practice leader within Marsh Risk Consulting’s workforce strategies group, based in Chicago.

“In the safety world, we refer to this as the one-size-fits-all approach,” Price said. “The one-size-fits-all approach is an ineffective way in providing the safety tools needed to protect our male and more importantly our female workers.”

PPE should fit all workers comfortably and appropriately, he said. For example, if a safety vest is too large, then it is possible that tools and equipment could easily snag it or it can become cumbersome while performing work tasks. If safety glasses aren’t properly fitted, dust, debris or foreign bodies have a better chance of making contact with the eyes.

“When employers take the time to ask questions and provide workers with a few options in the selection process, they can bridge this gap and make for better-fitting PPE,” Price said.

Looking Past Pink

Kristen Long, managing director, construction practice, Gallagher in Chicago, said that out of all her clients, roughly 80 percent have females on the job site.

“Owners want safety gear to fit women, but one of the concerns is that females are uncomfortable raising the issue, because they don’t want to appear to be asking for preferential treatment or to be singled out as females who aren’t happy to work in the field,” Long said.

Female business-owner clients have told Long safety harnesses are the biggest issue. Manufacturers offer pink harnesses to women that are actually men’s small, often displayed with a male mannequin.

Kristen Long, managing director, construction practice, Gallagher

“So the sizing is wrong and the pink makes women stand out on jobsites even more but doesn’t really protect them,” she said. “More important than color is that the harnesses either cross in between the breast plate or go underneath, but either way the harness puts an enormous amount of unnecessary stress on the women’s chests.”

The problem with ill-fitting clothes and safety gear is actually broader than the construction industry, and the construction firms need additional backup to support implementing industry change, Long said.

Utility, industrial, manufacturing and other union workers need safety equipment for climbing, high elevations and dangerous operations, which all require fall protection gear. “We should be able to provide well-fitting and safer equipment to a woman,” she said.

Stacey Gose, founder and CEO of TougHER, based in Corvallis, Oregon, believes her new firm should help alleviate this problem. TougHER was founded in 2015 to fill the marketplace gap in women’s workwear by proving high-quality, affordable workwear made for women — by women.

“I just hit a certain age and had an epiphany — I was mowing my backyard in men’s Carhartt pants that were hot, sweaty and I had to put a belt on to make it fit,” Gose said.

“Then I thought, why do women have to do this? We begrudgingly accept that major brands are just not focused on women as a core demographic. But I was raised that I can’t complain about something unless I do something about it, so I started my own company for women’s workwear.”

The new company currently offers work gloves sized specifically for women using high-grade deerskin leather, and later this month it will offer on its website the Groundbreaker work pants for women, which feature athletic fit, custom stretch fabric, breathable material, water-resistant finish and deep pockets to store tools.

More products for women in construction are in the pipeline to increase their safety and comfort on the job.

“We make products that are well-fitting for all sizes of women and in colors better suited for women who are tired of pink,” she said.

In addition to selling products directly to women on its website, TougHER also works with construction companies who need to outfit their female workers. Part of the marketing effort, Gose said, is reminding companies that appropriately-fitting safety gear for women is a key initiative for OSHA and the alliance it signed with the National Association of Women in Construction. &

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected].

More from Risk & Insurance