When her too-large safety vest caught on a door handle, Amy Roosa was jerked backward into the door. The contact resulted in a bruise.
For women in construction, that’s an all-too-common occurrence.
Founder of The Safety Rack, a social media network that reviews PPE for women in the trades, Roosa said it’s typical for women in construction to have to don ill-fitting gear. The result can introduce new hazards, as protection equipment like a bright safety vest morphs into an injury risk.
Amanda Guadarrama, project manager for Nashville, Tennessee-based Hardaway Construction, said she had experienced the exact same type of incident — a vest too big for her catching on something and jerking her back unexpectedly.
Sometimes the fit is too bad to even wear and work with.
“If, for example, my gloves are too big on me, I am more likely to remove them to complete my job, thus putting myself at risk for injury that the gloves could have prevented,” said Roosa, who works as a risk control specialist senior for Gallagher, a Rolling Meadows, Illinois-based insurance and risk consulting firm.
Jessica Bunting, research practice director for CPWR, or the Center for Construction Research and Training, said an informal survey of 174 tradeswomen found that 77% had been exposed to a hazard unnecessarily because of ill-fitting PPE. The top hazards included falls and inhalation and eye exposure — when eyewear or respiratory gear doesn’t fit well, debris or chemicals can more easily get into eyes and airways.
Paige Martonik, Reston, Virginia-based safety manager for DPR Construction, provided the same example as Roose and Guadarrama: a baggy vest catching on a door. Switching to a more tailored vest that fits her better has made doing her job easier and boosted confidence, Martonik said, adding she’d never go back to a looser fit.
The baggy or loose clothing like Roosa, Guadarrama and Martonik have had to wear can create new, more serious dangers. Beyond catching on a doorknob or hindering mobility, gloves or other loose clothing can get tangled in heavy, rotating machine parts, putting the worker’s body at higher risk.
Even without a specific exposure, poorly fitting fall harnesses, for example, can pinch or ride up, cutting off circulation or creating a choking hazard, Bunting said.
A worker issue, not a women issue
Bunting said there is a correlation between lack of or improper use of PPE and jobsite injuries.
In response to a separate survey from CPWR about fall incidents across the industry, nearly half of respondents said no protection was in use at the time of a recent fall. In about one in four cases where workers died in falls, they had access to personal fall arrest systems, but did not use them, according to an analysis of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation.
Even wearing poor-fitting PPE can give the impression — outward to others or inward to the worker wearing it — that they are safe and protected when they are not.
“If the PPE is not properly sized, it will not fully protect the worker and will give a false sense of security,” Martonik said.
And it is not just women who need access to the right size and kind of PPE.
“There are many male workers in all different shapes and sizes who don’t fit into PPE created for the average-sized American man,” Bunting said. “Thankfully manufacturers have begun developing more sizes and focus more on women’s workwear.”
In its informal survey, Bunting said, CPWR asked women if they had experienced difficulty obtaining PPE that fits them well at work. Nearly nine in 10 said yes. That said, some respondents indicated they have found and purchased PPE on their own, and thought therefore it wouldn’t be tough for employers to do so on their behalf.
The right fit
The demand for construction labor is high: the industry needs half a million more workers in 2023. Traditionally, it’s been a male-dominated industry, but that has shifted slightly in recent years: 14% of workers in construction are women, the highest it’s ever been. That includes both office and field employees..
But those underrepresented groups need to feel a sense of belonging to stick around.
“There is a psychological component as well to wearing properly fitted PPE,” Roosa said. “Plenty of women, myself included, are aware we already stand out on a jobsite … In addition to this, if employers are only supplying male sizes or unisex sizes, their female workforce may not feel like they are valued or wanted.”
And when wearing ill-fitting gear, it needlessly distracts from the task at hand.
“When women are on a jobsite, they shouldn’t be distracted thinking about the potential safety hazards of something that is supposed to protect them,” Guadarrama said.
Using the oversized glove example, Martonik noted it's not just a new hazard, it’s frustrating to how it impacts the task at hand.
“When team members don’t feel valued and cared for, their opinion of their job can be impacted,” she said. “Having the proper PPE is one of the ways we can demonstrate everyone’s value to the team … I want my teams to know that I respect and appreciate them, they too should be proud of their work.”