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From Hardhats to Boots: PPE Is Keeping Women from the Trades

Poorly fitting safety gear is dangerous, and a fact of life for women in construction.

Zak Vescera 19 Jan

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Leanne Hughf found her fit in construction, but nothing in construction fit her.

Her high-visibility vest hung off her shoulders. Empty nubs of fabric sat at the fingertips of oversized gloves. When she bought special no-grip shoes for paving asphalt, the smallest size didn’t fit her even when she wore two pairs of socks. “It’s like wearing clown shoes,” Hughf said.

British Columbia’s construction industry and the provincial government have spent years attempting to encourage more women to work in the sector, both as a push for equity and to fill a growing need for those skilled workers.

But virtually all of the personal protective equipment that keeps those workers safe is designed for men, something tradeswomen like Hughf say is both a safety risk and an example of the barriers women face in those male-dominated professions.

“All you want to do is do your job,” said Hughf, a heavy equipment operator who now works as a business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115. “But if you don’t have the proper tools to do your job, why would you want to continue doing it?”

A November report by the Canadian Standards Association found 92 per cent of about 500 women construction workers surveyed reported one or more problems with personal protective equipment.

Across the 3,000 women in various professions the CSA polled, only six per cent regularly wore PPE that was actually designed for women.

It’s not just a matter of comfort. Hughf has seen workers with baggy vests get dragged down a highway when a piece of fabric is snagged by a moving car. She’s had the tips of gloves caught in manhole lids and seen tradeswomen fumble with baggy coveralls while climbing ladders.

The CSA survey found almost four in 10 women in the trades had suffered an injury they believed was a direct or indirect result of their equipment. Nearly a fifth said they had considered leaving the profession altogether because of challenges finding appropriate gear.

Even when workers do find gear that fits, Hughf said, they often pay hundreds of dollars because their employers won’t provide it. In other cases, they improve what’s available, using safety pins or sewing needles to modify safety gear for a better fit.

“The issue is not that nothing exists. It’s that it’s not being made available widely” said Brynn Bourke, the executive director of the BC Building Trades.

The right fit

Jodi Huettner’s passion for PPE came, in part, out of a need to pee.

A decade ago, Huettner was working as an environmental engineer, a job that often brought her out to site assessments in the wilderness with teams that were entirely or predominately male.

She was especially aware of this when she had to go to the bathroom.

“My male counterparts could literally pee while sampling a well,” she said. But her gear — the coveralls, the tool belt — clearly were not made with her anatomy in mind. She often had to hitch a ride to the only bathroom at the worksite, which sometimes meant driving 20 minutes away.

That’s when Huettner began experimenting with “Frankenstein-ing” her gear, adding flaps and making adjustments so it worked for her body and her job. It was a service she would later offer to female colleagues.

Eventually, it became Helga Wear, a Vancouver company founded by Huettner specializing in women’s PPE — a product many major manufacturers simply don’t make.

Huettner said those larger companies often label smaller men’s products as being designed for women. But proper PPE is about more than just size: most women have different dimensions in the chest, shoulders head and hips that also affect the fit of the clothing, Huettner said. Their feet may also arch differently. That means the smaller versions of men’s clothing still create excess fabric and improper fits that can be uncomfortable, and even dangerous.

“It’s all for men, so what’s they’re saying is: women are nothing more than scaled-down versions of men, and we can get by with wearing the smaller sizes of men’s PPE, which is just completely not true,” Huettner said.

It is not a problem that solely affects women. Transgender and non-binary people, Hughf said, may have bodies that do not neatly align with the select range of sizes provided for cisgender men.

But the issue is deeply felt by women in the trades, in part because more and more are entering industries that are still dominated by men.

Last fall, the BC Construction Association reported that roughly 5.7 per cent of the more than 200,000 workers in the sector were women. That’s far from parity, but is 24 per cent higher than three years prior.

That increase has come after years of advocacy from industry, government and labour groups encouraging women to enter the trades.

A 2021 Labour Market Forecast predicts B.C. will have 85,000 new job openings in the skilled trades and more than 70,000 in the construction sector by 2031, most of them to replace retiring workers. The federal and provincial governments both offer financial incentives to women hoping to apprentice in the skilled trades, something unions have also supported.

But those professions are a long way from parity. A 2017 report into the experiences of women in the trades identified a range of systemic barriers keeping women out of the sector, ranging from gender-based discrimination and bullying to hiring practices. It also found the retention rates for female apprentices lagged behind the rates for men, even when the lower overall entry rate for the trades was taken into account: in 2013, for example, only 4.4 of registered apprentices in B.C. who completed their training were women.

“I hear from women who say that they need to feel brave to go into work,” said Karen Dearlove, the executive director of the BC Centre for Women in the Trades. “They need to have a thick skin. And I tell them, that shouldn’t be in your job description.”

That 2017 report also mentioned PPE, which for many women is a physical reminder of the systemic barriers they face in the trades.

“No one wants to work where they feel like they’re not part of the thing at the onset when they put the safety gear on,” said Dave Baspaly, president of the Council of Construction Associations. He said more and more employers are willing to pay the extra cost to offer that gear. Construction giant EllisDon recently launched a campaign to offer safety vests to women and other workers “whose frame and body type are not best served by traditional vest offerings.”

But most companies aren’t there yet.

A person stands in profile with a grey background, wearing an ill-fitting bright highlighter yellow jacket. They are holding the front of the jacket out in front of them.
An International Union of Operating Engineers member demonstrates how ill-fitting PPE can be. Photo via IUOE.

In theory, existing B.C. regulations already require companies to provide PPE that fits correctly. WorkSafeBC issued a new guideline on its rules last year, acknowledging protective clothing has traditionally been made for men and stating employers have an obligation to make sure PPE fits properly. But those rules aren’t necessarily being enforced.

In theory, B.C.’s government could change regulations or laws to explicitly require that employers provide PPE that fits women and people of other gender identities.

But Baspaly doesn’t think that would work, either, because multinational construction PPE manufacturers often don’t make gear for women because of how small the market is. Even if B.C. made it mandatory, Baspaly said, its population alone is too small to sway company decisions on that level. That’s left the market to “boutique” and small-scale manufacturers like Helga Wear.

“The manufacturers are looking at large market penetration in big urban centres,” Baspaly argued. “When we move and if everyone else moves, they consider it, but they don’t necessarily move with us.”

Then there’s the Canadian Standards Association, who set industry benchmarks for equipment like PPE across the country. That group did commission a survey into PPE for women and said in a November press release that it “has started to assess its existing portfolio of PPE standards to determine opportunities for improvement as it relates to women.” But changes resulting from that will likely take time, Hughf said.

The result is a waiting game. Governments haven’t forcefully regulated it, because manufacturers don’t make it. Manufacturers don’t make it because businesses aren’t asking for it. And businesses aren’t asking for it, in some cases, because they don’t have to.

That’s not to say things aren’t changing. Hughf recently negotiated a collective agreement for some International Union of Operating Engineers members with an explicit clause that the employer must provide properly fitting PPE for people of all genders.

A small, cute white Maltese toy poodle stands on its back legs.
Jodi Huettner’s company Helga Wear has grown enough to have an office and Leeloo the company dog. Photo by Zak Vescera.

And Helga Wear, Huettner’s company, has seen a swell of business. Originally, Huettner said, many in the industry dismissed her idea, saying the status quo of using men’s PPE was fine. She was doing “the Craigslist Hustle,” working a series of odd jobs to finance her business. Her home base was a shipping container on Mitchell Island, beneath the Knight Street bridge.

But she’s attracted a growing stream of business and admirers. Helga Wear turned a profit for the first time last year. She has now moved to office space on Frances Street in East Vancouver that she shares with another business and Leeloo, a Maltese toy poodle named for the character from The Fifth Element.

In some ways, Huettner said, the problem with PPE is a broader symptom of design standards that often take mens’ bodies as the “default” without consideration of how the same product may not work for other people.

Her hope is that her little boutique firm can be part of turning that story around, one vest at a time.

“I’m going to keep talking to anyone who will listen to me about exactly this,” she said.  [Tyee]

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