March 8, 2024

British Columbia is in the midst of a construction boom. There are major projects going up around the province, including the Broadway Subway Project, the Pattullo Bridge Replacement, Site C, the Cowichan and new Surrey Hospital projects, and many, many more.

But to build those important projects, we need workers. Right now, there is a well-documented labour shortage in the construction industry. Over the next 10 years, BC will need to recruit and train an additional 52,600 construction workers to support the market and meet demand.

It’s all hands on deck and that includes attracting folks who have not traditionally participated in the construction industry in high numbers.

On this International Women’s Day, we’re once again making the call: we need more women in the skilled trades. And we need them now. Only about 6% of the workforce is female.

One thing standing in the way of women joining construction in larger numbers is personal protective equipment (PPE). Or more accurately, what’s standing in the way is PPE that just doesn’t fit.

Imagine being a tradeswoman working at heights and relying on a safety harness that doesn’t fit properly. Imagine, in the midst of a busy shift, baggy clothing snagging on surfaces as heavy-duty equipment moves across a bustling construction site. Imagine having to use tape, rubber bands, and safety pins to make your PPE fit. It is dangerous, and it’s all too common.

A recent study from the Canadian Standards Association shows that 58% of tradeswomen use PPE that is the wrong size at least some of the time, 28% don’t wear all the required PPE at work because of fit, and 38% use a workaround to make their PPE fit. This, clearly, is a fundamental problem for women in construction.

Every worker deserves to return home safe after a day of work. By extension, they also deserve properly fitting PPE that will ensure it happens. We cannot expect women to join the construction industry en masse until we guarantee that they’ll have properly fitting PPE to keep them safe at work.

Instead, we are sending a message to women that they don’t belong and alienating them from the rest of their crews by singling them out with ill-fitting and inappropriate gear.

In the year 2024, it is shocking that one of the biggest issues facing women in trades is that they still don’t have access to life-saving PPE. The lack of good PPE for our tradeswomen is blatantly shameful and patently unfair. And it needs to be addressed. Now.

WorkSafeBC already has regulations in place that state workplace supervisors must “ensure that appropriate personal protective equipment is available to workers, properly worn when required, and properly cleaned, inspected, maintained and stored.” The regulations also stipulate that “personal protective equipment must not in itself create a hazard to the wearer.” WorkSafeBC must be more thorough in the enforcement of these regulations.

WorkSafeBC must also clarify and expand the application of guidelines to provide better instruction for employers as to their responsibilities on PPE.

Manufacturers must be encouraged and possibly incentivized to produce a wider range of quality PPE that properly fits the non-male body. Suppliers need to be motivated to stock that same PPE once it is manufactured.

Lastly, workers must be made aware that, not only do they deserve safe PPE that fits, the provision of that PPE by their employer is required by law. If an employer refuses to provide appropriately fitting PPE, workers have a right to refuse unsafe work.

Providing PPE that fits is an issue of safety. But it’s also an issue of respect. And until we provide prospective tradeswomen with the safety and respect they deserve, we can’t expect them to join the construction industry and build the projects British Columbians need.

Written for Daily Hive by Brynn Bourke, executive director of BC Building Trades (BCBT), a council representing more than 40,000 unionized construction workers.