PPE: fit and function, not fashion - Dr Jan Peters
Dr Jan Peters is an expert on gender and diversity issues in science and engineering (STEM)
Women, engineering, science, STEM, gender, inclusive,
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PPE: fit and function, not fashion

Adapted from an article first published in the Woman Engineer, Spring 2017

Are you fascinated why, in 2017, some still argue that asking for PPE that fits women is about making a fashion statement?

Women, and men, have long suffered the indignity and inconvenience with typical wry humour about ill-fitting Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). To be fair, some manufacturers have tried: making standard male fit clothing in smaller sizes, adding pink, sparkly laces to boots and even using preposterous ‘female’ style names such as ‘vixen’. Happily things have moved on. A bit. As witnessed by the list of links at the end of this post – taken from a recent lively thread on LinkedIn started by Clare Lennox. But we still need to do more. We need a serious approach led by the HSE and we need industry, unions, manufacturers and vitally, men to support the push to provide better PPE for everyone.

We know it’s an issue, but it’s not a priority

It’s hard to think it’s ten years since one manufacturer I called said “We know it’s an issue, but it’s not a priority”. It is reprehensible that the health and safety community have not championed better PPE for women, because this is not a call for women engineers to look better, it’s a call for safety, it’s a call to embody professionalism and it’s a call for a culture that embraces 100% a diversity of engineers (and other professions) of all shapes and sizes.

As women engineers we have trodden our paths with care: high standards, hard work and output and taken care not to be considered whingeing. The call for better PPE started with a small, pip-squeak of a voice on Daphnet about size 3 boots 10 years ago. There was a chorus of voices, several wanting size twos, supplier suggestions and practical solutions such as ‘stuff the end of size fours with a sock’. A working group followed and finally a survey.

‘stuff the end of size fours with a sock’

Aside from discomfort and inconvenience, the safety of women, and no doubt men too, was being compromised. The survey results were published in 2010: women “felt outsiders”, “unprofessional” dressed in oversized clothing and some even left the profession. The results were heart-rending and struck at the heart of what is wrong with engineering culture. But while many swept it under the carpet, others realised there was a real need for action and change.

New data and research offer hope

New data and research was presented on NWED in 2016 at a WISE / WES /Prospect knowledge sharing event when we heard there’s still an issue, but some exciting progress. Huzzah!
Manufacturers had partnered with employers and finally research exists that demonstrates the dangers to women’s feet, knees and hips of poorly fitting boots. Hurrah! Though as it is proprietary research it’s not public! Boo!
The great news is that employers who have diversity and inclusion high on their agenda, such as TfL, Babcock, Network Rail, Crossrail and Arup are now making great strides in ensuring their staff have the right PPE to enable them to do a professional job. Though I hear that if you are a clothing size 6/8 you still struggle! The full story though, and the impetus for this post is that shockingly the owners of the proprietary research say that the costs of development and testing are too high and the market isn’t big enough to cover all kinds of PPE and all kinds of safety categories.

The message is loud and clear. Changes are required urgently.
This is an issue that still needs to be addressed at the highest level. While change is in the air with mentions on USA safety organisations website front pages and an increasing number of organisations working on PPE that fits diverse people, for example:
“STRATA® brand through thoughtful research and creativity including taking the first steps towards a womenswear line which will be the first of its kind.”

We really shouldn’t still be at the “first steps” stage. And, the UK is lagging behind. Changes are required urgently. As more women are entering engineering and construction their safety is at risk, and, I believe that successfully addressing the availability of PPE will play a vital role in transforming workplace cultures to be more inclusive. To ensure that such PPE reaches every corner: from sole traders, consultants and diverse industries, funding must be allocated for research from sector levies and raising of standards is a must, supported by a campaign and setting of good practice.

Why should you bother?

While women, and in many cases men too, are faced with PPE that is the wrong shape and size people will continue to tweak it: stuff the ends of gloves, wear double socks and roll up cuffs putting themselves, and possibly others too, at risk. Aside from making sure you design, manufacturer and or make available appropriate PPE becauser it is the RIGHT THING TO DO, employers have a legal duty to ensure their workers are safe. Make it so. But if you are still trying to argue your way out of making sure there is PPE that fits, there are direct business benefits:

• Reduced industrial injuries
• Increased productivity
• Raised confidence and retention rates.

Manufacturers and employers need to pay attention to the ‘P’ in PPE. Make it personal.
And can I just add that the pinkification of just about every item of PPE is absolutely not what professional women want. As women engineers we do not demand fashion focused, frivolous colours.

What is required?

All we ask is that we have PPE that fits and enables us to do our jobs in the best and most professional and productive way possible. Improvements in the fit and flexibility of PPE will be better for business, better everyone, not just better for women.
So, for every male worker out there that isn’t quite the average male size and shape who wears PPE, stand up and ask for PPE that goes beyond the average.

Image credit: TfL. The new female PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) can be seen (left) modelled next to the current unisex issue equipment (right) image: TfL, pioneers of female-fit PPE.

Some possibly useful links

The following links are from a long LinkedIn chat in a search for good female fit PPE. I have edited out the obvious ones that don’t supply proper female fit, or where there are no female models on the site, but can’t vouch for the reality of the fit!

She Wear



RWW GROUP | Total Safety & Apparel Management

Direct Corporate Clothing

Duluth Trading Company

Shes Empowered


Eve Workwear

MEWP Safety

Winfields Outdoors


Canada leading the way (again) on equality

Arco launches women’s range article

Mining Weekly feature  

Article on TfL range

I debated if it was worth calling out those who seem to have grabbed themseleves an undeserved mention in Claire Lennox’s feed and on balance I will. And I will be happy to remove them when they step up to the mark! So here are a few who really need to pull hteir sox up, as well as offer them in more than one size. More to come….




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