PPE for Women We've Come A Long Way, Rosie,' But We Still Have A Ways to Go

April 1, 2010
News from the International Safety Equipment Association

In the World-War-II-era “We Can Do It!” poster, a female factory worker commonly — albeit mistakenly — called “Rosie the Riveter” is not wearing a single piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) nor a stitch of protective clothing.

More than half a century after that iconic poster appeared, a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advisory committee heard complaints about ill-fitting PPE and garments that were being provided to women in non-traditional jobs. Their 1999 report1 determined that poor-fitting protective equipment and clothing frequently did not function in the manner for which it was designed; accordingly, protection that the gear was supposed to deliver was compromised — leading to serious health and safety risks for women in those trades.

Fast-forward another 11 years and the situation with regard to PPE and protective clothing for women has improved dramatically. Hundreds of products designed with women in mind now are available from manufacturers and distributors.

“Industries have often adjusted to meeting the needs of women,” said Terri Sandu, founder of the Cleveland-based Hard-Hatted Women, who added that whole businesses have developed with the recognized need for safety equipment designed, sized and styled with women in mind.

Hard hats in various shades of pink can be seen in almost every construction zone and other hazardous worksite in America. Male workers' catcalls have subsided, in some cases because the pink hard hats are worn by the people in charge. In fact, 40 percent of the women in construction run their own businesses, and construction accounts for the largest growth in new women-owned business, according to a Wall Street Journal report.2

At least one online distributor that focuses solely on safety equipment and tools for women has been established to serve this growing market. At the same time, there is still room for improvement — in terms of the variety of equipment that is readily available and freeing up the pipeline that delivers that equipment to hard-working women.

Manufacturers Recognize Women's PPE Needs

“Manufacturers understand that there are women working in all industries who require PPE,” said International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) President Dan Shipp. “They make products that are designed and sized for women, but often safety directors and employers need to look for these products and not just expect everyone in the company to wear the same thing.

“A number of years ago, ISEA sponsored a display of PPE for women at a union-sponsored conference in Washington. We discovered that a lot of workers just didn't know that there were products available in different sizes and configurations for women. There are plenty more of them available now than there were then.”

While acknowledging that manufacturers now offer more safety gear for women and a better variety of it, Terri Piasecki, owner of Apex, N.C.-based online women's safety equipment distributor www.charmandhammer.com, believes that political correctness, size concerns and supply chain issues all play roles in constricting the pipeline that delivers PPE for women.

She cites some fall protection manufacturers' unwillingness to promote products as being designed especially for women as one example of political correctness: “Most manufacturers have models available for smaller workers, some recommend the cross-over chest styles for women, though they don't actually say they are for women in the catalogs,” she told a meeting of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's PPE Subcommittee.3

Piasecki notes that eye, hand and foot protection and high-visibility and protective apparel are areas where taking products that were designed initially for men and then reducing their size does not necessarily make them suitable for women. In addition to the obvious differences, anthropometric studies show that women typically have shorter arms, more flexible hips and more slender hands and feet, and their faces are shaped differently. All these attributes should be taken into account when designing products for women.

Some Women ‘Make Do‘

Unfortunately, women requiring PPE sometimes either are forced to or choose to “make do” and wear equipment designed for men, according to the Ontario Women's Directorate and Industrial Accident Prevention Association.

“Some women, particularly those who work in all-male sites, are reluctant to draw attention to their special needs,” the group notes in its Personal Protective Equipment For Women report.4 “The result, ill-fitting protective equipment can jeopardize the health and safety of female workers and their co-workers.”

Here are three pertinent examples cited in the Canadian report where smaller just does not necessarily work:

  • A woman with a small face wears goggles available in the shop. The gaps they leave at her temples allow flying debris from her machine to enter her eyes.

  • A woman who wears boots designed for men's feet complains of tripping while walking or climbing stairs or ladders. She suffers from blisters and burning on the soles of her feet.

  • A woman's hands are smaller — she has shorter, narrower fingers, and a smaller palm circumference — so even a man's small glove often does not fit.

Melina Harris, president of Kent, Wash.-based Sisters in the Building Trades, told Safety + Health magazine recently:5 “Rigging PPE to fit with rubber bands, duct tape, etc., is still very common. I and many women and smaller men buy their own or rig what they get.”

Improving Access to PPE for Women

Concerning the supply chain, charmandhammer.com's Piasecki said: “[P]roducts sit at the manufacturer until a wholesale distributor agrees to carry them and places an order. A product line that (appeals only to) women typically will not be stocked at the wholesale distributor level, which in turn makes it difficult for retail distributors to promote that line.

“[D]istributors will special order, but that usually takes two or three weeks to come in. Three weeks is a long time to wait for safety equipment. The old saying ‘You can't sell what you don't have’ still rings true. Then manufacturers see that the women's gear isn't moving and, in some cases, they discontinue it before anyone knew it even existed.”

ISEA currently is working with an OSHA advisory committee to provide information about and access to personal protective equipment that is sized, designed and styled for women. The Women in Construction Work Group of OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health is looking for ways to make employers, employees and OSHA itself aware of the availability of PPE for women. (See “Washington Watch” column in this issue of Protection Update.)

As ISEA continues this work to ensure that hard-working women everywhere have access to the safety equipment they need, here is a small sampling of the numerous innovative products that ISEA member companies already design, size and style with women in mind:6

Eye Protection

  • Encon Safety, www.enconsafety.com:

    • Verrati® eyewear featuring pink or purple translucent color, wrap-around design and brow guard.

    • XX safety eyewear, licensed by NASCAR®, with a square shape and logo on the temple.

  • Gateway Safety, www.gatewaysafety.com:

    • Luminary® eyewear has a lightweight frame and contemporary design with translucent temple inserts.

    • Scorpion® SM eyewear is 10 percent small- er than the regular product, and includes custom-fit features like adjustable length.

    • StarLite® SM and Starlight SM Gumballs eyewear are10 percent smaller than the regular products.

  • Kimberly-Clark Professional, www.kcprofessional.com, Jackson Safety brand Nemesis VI eyewear is lightweight and compact to fit a woman's features.

  • Magid Glove & Safety, www.magidglove.com, Gemstone® Myst Y12CFC eyewear, which is a smaller version of the Y10 Myst series; it is designed for women and other workers with smaller facial features.

  • MSA, www.msanet.com, Safe & Sophisticated? eyewear combines style and glamour with quality and durability.

  • Sperian Protection, www.sperian.com, W100, W200 and W300 series eyewear. The W100 is narrower with shorter temples; the W200 has a rose-colored frame that is narrower across the front with shorter temples, and the W300 has smooth-tapered temples.

Fall Protection

  • Sperian Protection, www.sperian.com, the Ms. Miller® harness specifically designed for the female worker with three unique features, (1) shoulder straps kept at the side and away from the chest, (2) front positioning loop and back/leg pads for better hip support, and (3) stretchable webbing so there is no bunching, binding or kinking.

Hand Protection

  • MCR Safety, www.mcrsafety.com:

    • Powder-pink and pastel-green string knit gloves with different grip patterns; the powder pink glove sizes include medium, small and extra small, while pastel green comes in large, medium and small.

    • For women's cut protection, MCR offers small and extra-small sizes in Dyneema and Kevlar gloves.

Head Protection

  • Bullard, www.bullard.com, view a chart on the Web site to find hard hats in colors designed with women in mind.

  • ERB Industries, www.e-erb.com:

    • Americana safety helmet in rose pink, featuring a short peak and low-profile design, and certified when the suspension is installed in reverse position.

    • Omega II safety helmet in high-visibility pink, and certified when the suspension is installed in reverse position.

  • Gateway Safety, www.gatewaysafety.com, Serpent™ vented safety helmet comes in colors including pink, orange, green, red and blue. The helmet suspension can be adjusted to fit a woman's head securely and comfortably.

  • MSA, www.msanet.com, V-Gard® protective helmets are available in three size options to accommodate women and other smaller-frame workers.

Hearing Protection

  • Magid Glove & Safety, www.magidglove.com, E2® IHP732 pink disposable earplugs in partnership with the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

  • Moldex-Metric, www.moldex.com, Meteors® Small earplugs in a new size to fit smaller ear canals; 100 percent PVC free, the soft, slow-recovery foam and contoured shape molds easily to the ear canal.

Protective Apparel

  • ArcStore.com, www.ArcStore.com, arc-rated ArcBra™, ArcPanty™ and ArcNet™ hairnet. The 100-ercent Nomex® knit bra meets ASTM F1506, the company said, and is custom-sized for each customer; the panty incorporates a cotton crotch-lining for comfort, and the hairnet also meets ASTM F1506.

Respiratory Protection

  • Gateway Safety, www.gatewaysafety.com, Peakfit® N95 disposable respirator with a unique design and adjustable one-piece head strap that provides a perfect fit for a woman's face, the company said.

  • Moldex-Metric, www.moldexmetric.com, respiratory protection, with 95 percent of its products available in small sizes to better fit women's faces; the shell naturally contours to the face, avoiding constant adjustment.

  • MSA, www.msanet.org, Advantage® 200 LS respirator to meet the needs of women workers through fit and comfort in a small size. The AnthroCurve? sealing surface provides virtually customized fit.


Get the straight scoop on updated high-visibility apparel standard

Learn about help from NIOSH to address construction challenges

Scan innovative services from ISEA members

View OSHA videos that guide healthcare workers on respirator use

Find answers to questions about gas monitor calibration


Joseph L. Walker is marketing communications advisor to the International Safety Equipment Association and has been editor of Protection Update since its inception in 2000. He is a member of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. Reach him at [email protected] or 703-491-3301.

Protection UPDATE

News from the International Safety Equipment Association

Protection Update
is intended for anyone who specifies, purchases or uses personal protective equipment, and those who regulate it. Protection Update is available via ISEA's website, www.safetyequipment.org.

1901 North Moore Street
Arlington, VA
22209-1762 USA
Telephone: (703) 525-1695
Fax: (703) 528-2148

Daniel K. Shipp, President
[email protected]

Joseph L. Walker, Editor
[email protected]

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