The news that a major construction scheme intends to enforce properly-fitted PPE for women on its sites has been warmly received within the industry. It’s a topic we’ve written about before, and a change that’s not before time. The issue is a substantial one, and a hidden scourge that both commonly contravenes safety regulations, and disincentivises women from entering the industry.

However, this needs to only be the first step in a wider recognition of the safety issues faced by women and others in the industry – not just in terms of access to properly-fitted PPE, but in all aspects of workplace safety. The ‘one size fits all’ approach commonly taken to safety provisions too often excluded people from the process – leading to rules that aren’t fit for purpose, and are an active risk to people’s lives.

Improper PPE

The Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) is an accreditation group that provides a code of practice centred on workers’ rights, building trust with local communities, and protecting the environment through responsible working practices. The group has announced a pledge to require the provision of tailored PPE for women across sites that opt-in to its code of practice, providing not only the right size of PPE, but PPE that is properly fitted.

The lack of fitted PPE for women has been a prevalent issue. Despite women now making up a reported 15.8% of the construction workforce, very few sites offer tailored PPE, with PPE being offered in men’s sizes only. This means that even if PPE is technically the right size, it often doesn’t fit women’s proportions, with trousers being tight at the waist or loose around the hem. This is not only a comfort issue, but a safety one: baggy or improperly secured PPE can get caught in machinery, be a trip hazard, or otherwise have its effectiveness reduced.

While women’s PPE issues had been in the zeitgeist, the move by CCS was driven by a survey put out by women’s advocacy group the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). It found that 60% of surveyed employers did not provide tailored PPE for women, and that 42% of the 157 women who responded said ill-fitting PPE had affected their career, whether that was through feeling unsafe or feeling improperly dressed on-site. This only exacerbates the existing difficulties many women have when attempting to build a career in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Keeping everyone safe at work

While this move is to be lauded, there is much more to be done to make construction a more accommodating industry for women. What it does do is highlight how easy it is for health and safety practitioners to ignore people’s needs in the application of safety regulations. Every construction site should have supervisors and other health and safety representatives with comprehensive training, yet such a simple issue has been repeatedly overlooked. It reflects how safety can become a box ticking exercise, where the provision of PPE is deemed to satisfy the criteria for safety equipment, even if it fundamentally doesn’t work.

This is something that can all too easily pervade other areas of workplace safety. Say for instance you have a disabled employee. It might occur to you to think about access requirements and the provision of disabled toilets. But what about the tools they use to do their job every day? What about DSE regulations? What about evacuating a building in the event of a fire? Due to a lack of thought or perspective, it’s easy to miss these things that you personally might take for granted, but which other people are affected by.

This goes beyond even physical factors. Just as important as keeping people safe in the workplace is ensuring that everyone buys into your safety culture. It’s ok to have rules, but if nobody follows them – or even one person fails to – their actions could put everyone else at risk. When you’re looking to immerse everyone in your safety culture, ensuring they understand it and the need for safety rules, your messaging needs to include everyone. This could range from using language that’s too complex and technical, to explaining something in a jokey or ‘bantery’ way that causes some people to switch off.

Sexism and mental health

The other, less pleasant aspect of this is the possibility that women’s PPE has been overlooked because off sexist attitudes, a lack of willingness to accommodate women on worksites, or a feeling that such accommodations can’t be justified for a small number of people. If there is one woman on a worksite, a company or supervisor might baulk at having to make special provisions for them, even if these are as simple and inarguable as providing PPE that fits. If everyone else has always ‘made do’, the feeling that someone is treated differently to others might be seen as an imposition.

Again, this comes back to the importance of a positive safety culture, but also a positive culture in general. Safety always suffers when a workplace culture is antagonistic or cliquey, whether that is a threat to someone’s physical health or their mental health. The impact of not being given the proper PPE in this case could go well beyond women lacking the protection they are legally required to have. It could also make them feel more isolated, different from and at odds with their colleagues, impacting their happiness and productivity.

This is something that needs to be handled first by an acknowledgement that issues exist, and then through measures to address this culture. As a team, everyone should be on the same page, and working in unison. Where safety is concerned, it should consider each individual’s unique requirements. This is true regardless of gender, with things like height, weight, your physical capabilities, and even your age and experience all factoring into safe working practices. Where biases exist, diversity & inclusion training can make a tangible difference to help colleagues empathise and connect with each other.

Inclusive PPE should not be controversial, or feel like an imposition on businesses. Properly-fitted PPE is a legal requirement, and a fairly innocuous one at that. Women should not be made to feel that they are foisting a financial burden or inconvenience on businesses, particularly in an industry where they may already have trouble integrating.

What this story highlights above all else, however, is how far there is to go in accommodating everyone when it comes to health & safety. The fact that it has taken this long for the serious issues faced by women in construction to be acknowledged points to bigger failings in how we assess risks and the action we take to keep everyone safe, not just the ‘average’ employee. Safety should be holistic, but it also needs to be granular – ensuring that everyone both is safe and feels safe at work.