Why personal protective equipment provision is unfit for purpose

29th May 2024

Exploring inequalities in personal protective equipment (PPE) provision among minority groups across the construction industry.

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By John Challen

The importance of PPE in the workplace, especially on highways and within transport networks, cannot be underestimated. With that in mind, a recent CIHT panel discussion was held by the Yorkshire and the Humber region on the subject to highlight the diversity – or lack of – in PPE and to find out what improvements can be made. 

A number of points were made around the area of unsuitable PPE, especially for minority groups, such as the fact that poor fitting PPE can cause injuries, and even long-term health issues, and also anxiety.

On the whole, it is a topic that women and those from minority groups can feel uncomfortable talking about according to the panel, and more awareness is needed.

“Diverse PPE should become universally available and accessible within workplaces, so become mainstreamed as inclusive PPE and not ‘othered’,” says CIHT’s EDI Manager Emma Carruthers.
“Inclusive PPE of course goes beyond gender and should be readily available and suitable for people from minoritised ethnic or faith identities, people with disabilities, of different shapes and sizes and more. Inclusive PPE has the power to communicate with your workforce the level of value you place on their safety and wellbeing.”

Speaking up for diversity

Another of the voices in this area is the National Association of Women in Construction for Yorkshire Campaign Manager, Katy Robinson. “From having to create makeshift insoles in uncomfortable footwear, having to deal with stomach cramps from wearing high visibility trousers designed for men and losing oversized boots in muddy fields, I’m one of many women in the construction industry to have an issue with the personal protective equipment I’ve been given. And now I’m on a mission to change that,” she said in a recent blog.

Following up on this subject in the panel discussion, Robinson continued: “We found some really interesting statistics that nearly 60% of employers were not providing women-specific PPE, so they were having to wear men’s and unisex PPE which was ill-fitting.”

“I was given women’s boots and realised boots are not meant to be uncomfortable. People in construction wear safety boots up to 40-50 hours a week, so we should be comfortable in them at least,” Robinson said, citing hard hats and gloves as other areas of male-dominated design where risks such as instability in the terms of the former, and entanglement in the latter are associated.

Effects of ill-fitting PPE include health and safety related issues and also increased likelihood of slips, trips and falls, long-term health problems, general discomfort, and a restricted range of movement.

Joining the discussion, Amy Compton (Buyer) and Dr Charlotte Usher (Chartered Principal Geophysicist and Geophysical Technical Lead) from RSK Group revealed how the environmental, engineering, and technical services company surveyed participants about women-specific PPE provisions, and why the feedback was often negative.

According to Compton: “[We asked what they] thought about the current range. Keywords and phrases turned up such as ‘There were no demos’, ‘It’s limited and difficult to find’ and ‘Uncomfortable and too tight around the hips’.”

It was also revealed that although a lot of providers offered unisex products, this was not the same as ‘female fit’.

“Ultimately men’s and women’s body shapes are different,” concluded Dr Usher. “Unisex tends to be designed for the male body. In general, the hips are narrower, the legs are longer, the crotch position is lower and the ankles, particularly on boots, are wider, which can lead to medical issues which I personally experienced.”

Also, in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, CIHT are encouraging those in highways and transportation to drive meaningful change around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the CIHT Y&H Conference 2024. It features a presentation from safety equipment suppliers Arco, as UK Strategic Development Manager Wendy Gaynor Barrett addresses the issue of ill-fitting PPE.

CIHT members can sign up for this event (for free) taking place on Tuesday 11th June in Leeds, The Terrace, 3 Wellington place. CIHT President Karen McShane will be providing the keynote address.

Newsletter image: woman working in construction; credit: Shutterstock.

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