Advocating for Inclusive Workwear for Women

August 11, 2023

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HI! I'm Aimee

In my career, I’ve been in mining, I’ve been in road construction, I’ve been in civil, and I’ve been in telecom, and it blows my mind how so many of those environments are not geared toward women. Not only are they not geared toward women, they are actually created in a way that makes it almost impossible for women to work there comfortably.

One of the biggest issues I see is PPE that does not fit women correctly. I’ve been in those coveralls that I constantly have to hike up. I’ve been in those safety vests sloping off my shoulders all the time, and my feet hurt because the rain boots I have to wear are not made for my feet.

This is such an important topic of conversation that in episode 28 of the Transmit Safety Podcast, I chatted with Jodi Huettner, a  mechanical engineer and women’s PPE specialist.

Jodi founded Helga Wear out of necessity after years of first-hand experience with the challenges, health and safety issues and lost productivity women on worksites face due to ill-fitting and inadequate PPE.

She aims to help companies find more safety and money through body-specific PPE options.

I have compiled everything you need to know about inclusive workwear design into this article to help you promote safe and inclusive workwear at your worksite.

In this blog post, You’ll learn:

  1. Jodi’s experience with ill-fitting PPE
  2. The productivity challenges of ill-fitting workwear
  3. How to address the issue of proper workwear for women
  4. Two steps employers can take to promote the use of safe and inclusive workwear
  5. Advice for people wanting to contribute to the advocacy of inclusive workwear for women

If you’re ready to learn how ill-fitting and inadequate PPE affects women at worksites, fill up that workplace-approved beverage and get reading!

  1. Jodi’s Experience With Ill-fitting PPE

Jodi’s reasoning behind starting Helga Wear comes from her lived experiences.

She started her career as a mechanical engineer training for an engineer environmental consulting firm on the coast of British Columbia. 

In the rain forest, most of the job is done in remote bear and cougar country, taking water samples and soil samples, working on big remediation sites, assessment sites, and missioning sites.

Picture Jodi tip to toe in PPE, from a hard hat to steel-toe boots. Carrying coolers full of samples or empty sample jars and all her pumping equipment and pipes from well location to well location. There can be hundreds of well locations on a site.

At each location, you must very carefully get the water into the little jars drip by drip, and it’s pouring with rain. A huge challenge for Jodi was that she always had to go to the bathroom. 

She realized the huge hassle it is for women to use the bathroom at these remote sites. 

All of Jodi’s male colleagues could pee while they were sampling behind the bush. 

For Jodi to quickly use the bathroom, she would have to take off her visibility vest, take off her tool belt, which had her bear spray, bear bangers, and her communications device, take off her jacket, and lower her suspenders. You’re exposing yourself to the rain and anyone who might be looking since you’re supposed to be in the line of sight. 

That wasn’t feasible. The only other option then was to stop what you were doing and call the only person with a truck. They must stop what they are doing, pick you up, take you to the washroom, wait for you, and then take you back. And that could easily take half an hour. 

Unfortunately, Jodi explains, the way our world works, all the metrics are based on how fast you are. They’re not based on safety metrics. 

When Jodi spoke to her female colleagues, they said the same thing. Don’t drink water. Don’t drink coffee. Don’t drink until you have to, which is when you start getting lightheaded or dizzy. Only then do you drink and hold it in for as long as possible. 

If you do that for long enough, you end up having a whole host of health effects and become chronically dehydrated.

Jodi suffered from chronic urinary tract infections, an inability to sleep at night because she constantly thought she needed the bathroom, a resurgence of allergies she hadn’t had since she was a kid and a lower immune system.

Jodi got sick way more often than her male colleagues did. She was going to the GP and getting prescribed sleeping pills, antibiotics for UTIs, and antihistamines that she shouldn’t have needed. Yet nobody said, let’s talk about your hydration and toileting behaviours on the job. 

  1. The Productivity Challenges of Ill-fitting Workwear

When Jodi was wearing gear that didn’t fit her body, not only did going to the bathroom take way longer than it should have, but she ended up fiddling with her gear a lot. 

Jodi was constantly adjusting, fiddling, and modifying her gear throughout the day. An example is having to hike up her pants or coveralls with one hand while trying to trudge over uneven ground wearing steel-toed boots too big or misproportioned for her feet. The number of times women are stuck fiddling, adjusting, and worrying about where the envelope of their PPE is falling while they’re doing their work has a productivity factor that has to be something that we recognize.

In her work, Jodi explains that there are a lot of transitions between kneeling, standing, and crouching. When going through that much flexion with your foot, having boots with the flexion point just slightly off makes a huge difference. 

Men’s flexion point, where the ball of their foot sets, is at a slightly different place and has a different proportion than women’s. That’s why women’s feet will be aching at the end of a 12-hour shift. Maybe that’s okay for day one or two in the field job. But by day three or day four, you’re significantly distracted by the subtle pain that no amount of stretching can help. 

From a productivity standpoint, just using the bathroom put Jodi behind by at least an hour each day. That’s only one person in the program. Multiply that out by six to eight women. And this is in Environmental Engineering, where there are many women – productivity will take a huge hit.

  1. How to Address the Issue of Proper Workwear for Women

According to Jodi, proper PPE for women all comes down to actually designing for women.

You have to ask a manufacturer:

  • Has this PPE been developed using women’s body data?
  • Has it been graded using women’s wear grading rules? 

And you need to pay attention to the language used. A very common practice is down-labeling men’s PPE. This means taking a piece of PPE designed for a man, labelling it with a different size, and claiming it is women’s PPE. 

The problem is in proportion. A huge telltale feature is the inseam length – the length from the bottom of the pant right up to the crotch. That length changes for men almost linearly as you increase in size, but for women, it does not. If you want your inseam length to be any different, you have to get a tall option no matter how big the size goes.

Unfortunately, we think of things in terms of cost. 

“Until quite recently, there wasn’t a business case for providing women with PPE – women’s PPE. That means there weren’t enough women in the industry to justify the expense. I can’t help but ask where’s the magic number? Was it 12 women, then suddenly our safety mattered? At what point did we start mattering?” – Jodi Huettner

Jodi has navigated the balance between price expectation and profit when creating PPE for women by creating strategic partnerships with companies that see the true value in women’s PPE. She also reframes the situation – what is the cost of doing nothing? At some point, companies will not have access to the female talent pool if they do not address these issues. 

  1. Two Steps Employers Can Take to Promote the Use of Safe and Inclusive Workwear

1. Revaluate the way you’re looking at PPE

According to Jodi, typically, we do a very pass-fail kind of inspection of PPE. Either people are wearing PPE – pass, or they’re not – fail. We need to take it one step further and start asking the question, does this PPE fit?

Jodi never felt empowered in the field to talk about the hazards she was experiencing because of her PPE. She didn’t want to make it any more obvious how different she was from all the men.

When you’re glancing around a site, you can see that women wear PPE that doesn’t fit. There’s duct tape or electrical tape wrapped around a woman’s legs, or there’s an elastic band gathering in the huge amount of excessive fabric on a woman’s back. These are things Jodi has seen.

As health and safety professionals, we must start seeing things, asking questions, and realizing that some people might not be empowered to submit complaints. 

Often, when women submit complaints, they’re not met with good reception. If you do have feedback come in, make sure that you’re listening, believing, and thinking about it from the person’s perspective of how it feels to come in every day and face those obstacles.

2. Investing in proper washrooms, change rooms, and PPE for women

There are very few suppliers stocking even the small sizes of men’s gear, let alone taking the extra cost, investment, and effort and making women’s PPE and then stocking that. 

There needs to be an investment in proper washrooms,

change rooms, and PPE that fits. 

Over the past five years, we saw $73 million invested by the Canadian government into trades training incentives and educating high school girls about the potential of a career in trades. Yet very few to no investments are made to support the women currently working in trades.

Yes, it will be an upfront investment, but it will be worth it.

Changes have to happen in the manufacturing industry too. At the same time, care and money need to be given to developing PPE for women as given to men.

  1. Advice for People Wanting to Contribute to the Advocacy of Inclusive Workwear for Women

Jodi’s biggest advice for people wanting to contribute to advocating inclusive workwear for women is to connect.

“We are so powerful when we’re connected.” – Jodi Huettner

There’s work behind the scenes that Jodi is not free to talk about yet. But campaigns are underway to make safe and inclusive workwear not only available to women but to make it a requirement at worksites. 

There are going to be callouts for support. Jodi says they need support from every single person, every boot on the ground, and every level of stakeholder. 

In your every day, until the big push happens, Jodi’s advice is to start reporting. 

If you see something, it doesn’t matter if it’s on a man or a woman if you see PPE that doesn’t fit and it looks like it could be a hazard, or if you witness a near miss related to PPE, write that down.

We need to start collecting the analytics and the science to make a strong case.

Talk to your employers and your union reps, and let your union reps know that some amazing unions are getting language about PPE and fit written into collective agreements.

Just start talking about this need and start asking questions. 

When you look at the news, you see a labour shortage and that there will be a decrease in trades because people are starting to retire, and not enough people are replacing them. But a large portion of our general population doesn’t feel welcome, included, or empowered enough to go into trades.

If nothing else, make sure to take this with you:

  • Ill-fitting PPE for women not only affects productivity but also affects women’s health.
  • The number of times women are stuck fiddling, adjusting, and worrying about their PPE while they’re doing their work has a productivity factor that has to be something that we recognize.
  • Proper PPE for women all comes down to actually designing for women.
  •  Reevaluate how you look at PPE and invest in proper washrooms, change rooms, and PPE for women.
  • We are more powerful when we are connected.

Thank you for being part of the Transmit Safety network.

I hope these lessons will be valuable to you and help you on your journey to becoming the Health & Safety leader you want to be!

To hear my conversation with Jodi Huettner and learn more about inclusive workwear for women, tune in to episode 28 of the Transmit Safety Podcast – Inclusive Workwear Design with Jodi Huettner.

If this resonates with you or you’d like to continue this conversation, don’t hesitate to reach out! I answer all my messages, and you can find me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. To continue discovering ways to achieve a holistic approach to workplace health and safety, and become an impactful Health and Safety leader, tune into the next episodes of the Transmit Safety Podcast.