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Empowering Change: Encouraging the Provision of Women's PPE in the Construction Industry

Posted: 14th December 2023

Katy Robinson

Senior Project Manager

East Riding of Yorkshire Council

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.

In 2023, I celebrated six years of working in the construction industry, I also celebrated receiving my first pair of safety boots designed for women. After years of assuming ‘all safety boots must be uncomfortable’ I was pleasantly surprised to receive a pair of women’s safety boots. Not only did I only have to wear a single pair of walking socks - instead of the usual 2 or 3 pairs, but they also had sufficient ankle support, insoles designed for women’s feet, and were actually comfortable.

You could almost say they fit like a glove - although if you’re a woman who’s ever had to wear unisex safety gloves, you’ll understand that this saying is meaningless!

As the Campaign Manager of the National Association of Women in Construction for Yorkshire (NAWIC Yorkshire), it was one of my responsibilities to pick the campaign focus. After reading about the CIOB’s #PPEthatfits campaign, I was devoted to making a difference within the world of inclusive PPE. The NAWIC Yorkshire campaign started with a piece of research, to investigate the current state of personal protective equipment (PPE) for women in the construction industry. This research highlighted that 59.6% of participants do not receive women’s PPE, despite it being readily available on the market. Why are so many women missing out?

The barriers to the effective supply of PPE for women are a confusing maze of procurement barriers, stigma, and misinformation. The NAWIC Yorkshire research highlighted issues surrounding the cost of women’s PPE, and that it is typically more expensive compared to men’s, as well as barriers relating to increased delivery times, limited size and stock availability, and the stigma that “the regular sizes will do”.

Yet, the NAWIC Yorkshire research also highlighted that ill-fitting PPE was linked to a number of health and safety related issues; increased likelihood of slips, trips and falls, long term health problems, PPE being caught in machinery and plant, general discomfort, PPE restricting the user’s range of movement, and distracting the user from their surroundings and the task at hand.

For an issue that has so many problems, you wouldn’t have expected the solution to be so simple, to provide your staff with suitably fitting PPE.

Once the research report had been published, the campaign gained traction and escalated, widening our reach, spreading awareness further. The ultimate goal of the campaign is for the legislation and standards relating to PPE to be amended to take into consideration different factors, such as gender. However, I did appreciate that the judiciary system in the UK can take years to make amendments and changes to existing legislation, so instead we focused on how we could make a difference to women working in the industry now.

As of December 2023, NAWIC Yorkshire is proud to be working with 14 construction frameworks, 6 health and safety accreditations, 6 industry councils, associations, and federations to encourage the provision of women’s PPE.

This issue is not unique to the construction industry; our stories and anecdotes have been echoed by women in quarrying, rail, transport, emergency services, wind engineers, and even the healthcare industry, which is a predominantly female-dominated industry.

The construction industry doesn’t have the best of reputations, with the recent HSE statistics highlighting that the construction industry had statistically significantly higher rates of workplace non-fatal injury rates compared to the average rate across all industries. In an industry where we are stereotypically reactive to change, we have the opportunity to be proactive, and make a difference before a tragedy occurs.

Let’s bring back the emphasis on “personal” within the personal protective equipment acronym, and provide our staff with #PPEthatfits.

Katy Robinson

Senior Project Manager

East Riding of Yorkshire Council

Katy Robinson is a Senior Project Manager at East Riding of Yorkshire Council and the Campaign Manager for the National Association of Women in Construction for Yorkshire (NAWIC Yorkshire)