The limited availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for women is a critical workplace health and safety issue. In addition to undermining efforts to protect worker health and safety, a lack of adequate PPE can be a barrier to equality in the workplace for women. Inadequate PPE means that women entering ‘non-traditional’ fields, such as engineering, mining and construction, are unable to perform their jobs safely and effectively.
Women who choose to enter traditionally male-dominated industries face a number of unique challenges, both in the workplace and at home. While many of these challenges require long-term social and cultural changes; every step towards a more equitable and inclusive workforce is a step in the right direction.
An unequal footing from the outset
Every day there are women in our workforce being issued with ill-fitting men’s safety footwear and PPE. In many industries, women are forced to ‘make do’. Some women, particularly those who work on predominantly male sites, are reluctant to draw attention to their special needs. With a relatively small female component in occupations that are non-traditional, many manufacturers are reluctant to invest in the necessary research and development to produce correctly sized and proportioned products. The result, ill-fitting protective equipment, can jeopardise the health and safety of female workers and their co-workers.
Women must be fitted, and not just ‘fit in’
In 2015, the Department of Mineral Resources amended the Mine Health and Safety Act to include guidelines for a mandatory code of practice on the provision of PPE for women in mining. Setting a stellar example for other risk-intensive industries to follow, these guidelines noted that the selection, provision and use of PPE in the workplace should not only be based on hazard identification and risk assessment processes but should incorporate ergonomic and comfort aspects of users so as to guarantee PPE efficiency for all workers.
Such an approach ensures that specific female anthropometries (measurable size and physiological differences) are adequately accommodated. By taking the female anatomy into consideration when designing and manufacturing PPE, it is possible to ensure that women are properly protected against workplace hazards, and they can perform to the best of their abilities, without additional worry.
Collective responsibility for inclusivity
As more women enter risk-intensive industries and join the relevant unions, it will become important for these unions to use their collective bargaining power to properly represent their constituents. More manufacturers need to take into account the changing nature of the labour force and realise that they have a duty to make available adequate protection for every worker with a PPE requirement. Employers also have a duty to action the policies made by lawmakers to ensure workplace safety. This is because meeting the PPE needs of women is not just an occupational safety requirement, it is essentially an employment equity issue.
Collectively, employers, unions and manufacturers can begin addressing the PPE gender gap by:
- Undertaking PPE needs surveys in the workplace to learn about the problem areas of fit and comfort and gauge the true ergonomic and comfort requirements of women.
- Ensuring that buyers seek out PPE providers who offer products in women’s sizes and fits, and that buyers only deal with product/sales representatives who are knowledgeable in the proper fitting of PPE, for both men and women.
- Being specific about size requirements of employees when ordering from suppliers (this means no more bulk orders of one-size-fits-all for cost-cutting purposes).
- Fitting and assigning each worker with PPE on an individual basis and ensuring that the proper size range is kept on hand at all times.
- Involving workers in the process of choosing specific items they require, which means allowing them to try two or three model variations to determine which offers the best fit and comfort.
- Working with health and safety committees, health and safety representatives, and union representatives on PPE issues.
- Networking with other stakeholders in the industry with similar needs to arrange to purchase collectively where the price of smaller sizes in limited quantities is prohibitive.
- Working with manufacturers in the research and development of female-specific products.
Equality does not mean treating men and women the same. When it comes to PPE, equality means acknowledging the differences between men and women, and catering to these differences so that both are properly equipped for the task at hand. This is a small step toward leveling the playing field, but it sends a powerful message of inclusivity to all players in the industry.
Honouring the contribution of women: hear our voices
Women’s Month acknowledges the impact that women have had on the history of our country, commemorating the day that they marched to the Union Buildings in their thousands in August of 1956 to protest against the carrying of pass books. In a gesture traditionally exercised by men in this country, women took a step forward to help shape our history and have continued to do so ever since. As such, women in the industry must no longer feel obligated to fit in. Women must create a demand for PPE that meets their specific needs and must use their voices to be heard. It is not too much for women to expect PPE that makes them feel safe and empowers them to perform at their peak in their chosen industries.