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Employers should pay closer attention to the fit of personal protective equipment, as more women find work in safety-sensitive industries.
The number of women — as well as men — in construction dropped during the recession in 2008, “but it's on the way back up again,” said Carol Schmeidler, manager of general safety and industrial hygiene programs for the department of environmental health and safety at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York in Buffalo, New York. Ms. Schmeidler also wrote a chapter about women in construction for the 2014 textbook, Construction Safety Management and Engineering.
Of the 9.3 million people working in construction in 2013, about 840,000 — or 9.1% —were women, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since more women are working in industries that require employees to wear personal protective equipment has spurred a larger discussion about ill-fitting gear, experts say.
While protective shoes are relatively easy to get in women's sizes today, coveralls and tools that are sized for smaller hands can be more difficult to find.
“There are some (glove) lines now that come in extra small, but imagine using tools with gloves that are too big for you,” Ms. Schmeidler said. “The risk of hitting yourself or getting a glove caught in something is huge.”
Safety glasses and hard hats also need to be sized because, if safety equipment isn't comfortable, it's going to be modified or not worn at all, experts say.
For example, people with smaller ear canals need smaller ear plugs, Ms. Schmeidler said. Workers tend to cut foam ear plugs in half if they're too big, but that means they're not “providing the degree of protection that they should,” she said.
While some employers might be unaware that equipment doesn't offer maximum protection when it's ill-fitting, others could be ordering a large quantity of similar sizes to save money, experts say, adding that not designating sizes could hurt employers and their workers.
Jeremy Bethancourt, director of safety, health and training for LeBlanc Building Co. Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona, said he uses unisex fall-protection harnesses that range in size to fit all of his workers.
“I have a middle ground of what fits, and then when I have one that fits one way or the other, I'll just order (another size),” he said. “If it doesn't fit right, they're not going to use it, and it's not going to work correctly for them.”
Pants and sleeves that are too long are a tricky problem to fix on most worksites; if they're not rolled up, they create a tripping hazard, but if they are rolled up, they're not providing protection to parts of the arms and legs, experts say.
And it's not just women who have trouble with ill-fitting personal protective equipment, said Trish Ennis, Denver-based president of the Des Plaines, Illinois-based American Society of Safety Engineers and senior risk control consultant with Willis North America Inc. “It's anyone who falls outside the parameters of what we consider to be the average physique,” she said.
Ms. Schmeidler, who recommends personal protective equipment for staff members at the University at Buffalo, said she's never found it difficult to make a case for properly fitting gear, but that's probably not the norm.
“It's not that we have unlimited resources,” Ms. Schmeidler said. “But we certainly have a varied population of workers in our facilities department and on campus that wear different sizes.”
While implementing a drug-testing and monitoring program can provide a variety of benefits for employers, those firms looking to improve safety in the workplace need to keep in mind the strengths and limits of the practice.