IUOE 115 business representative Leanne Hughf has been pushing for properly-fitting PPE for women for years. (IUOE 115)

March 4, 2024

IMAGINE WALKING ONTO A JOB site and all the tools you need are there. There’s a nice selection of personal protective equipment (PPE) that fits you. You put on the PPE, grab your tools and get to work knowing you’ll be safe on the job.

That scenario sounds simple. In fact, it sounds absolutely basic. But for many women in the trades, it sounds like fantasy.

Jasmine Ross knows the story all too well. She is a labourer and wears a fall-arrest harness while installing waterproofing from an aerial lift at work.

“Those harnesses are definitely not made for me,” said Ross. “I almost fell on my face the other day. I had the leg straps too tight. If it’s too loose, it’s no good. If it’s too tight, it’s no good. I wanted to throw the damn thing off.”

The only harnesses available on her current job site were men’s size large and medium so Ross had to cinch the leg straps extra tight, but every time she repositioned herself, the straps chafed her thighs or she would get stuck and have to stop work and readjust her harness.

A member of the Laborers International Union of North American Local 1611 (LiUNA 1611), Ross was at a recent Build TogetHER women’s committee meeting when she first heard of harnesses designed for women. “I thought ‘What? How come I’ve never heard of this?’ What I’d like to see on a multi-billion dollar project is ‘Oh, you’re a female and we actually have female PPE for you’ instead of one size fits all,” said Ross.

Ill-fitting harnesses are not the only problem. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) conducted a survey of approximately 3,000 Canadian women about their experiences with PPE in the workplace including 500 women who work in construction. Out of those women, 73 per cent said they use PPE that is the wrong size, and 49 per cent incorporate a work around like using rubber bands, safety pins and duct tape to shorten fall-arrest gear, secure work gloves, shorten sleeves and prevent their pant legs from tripping them.

The problem with DIY-ing protection equipment is that alterations void the CSA certification, says Jennifer Teague, a member of the survey’s research advisory panel and vice president of standards research and education with the CSA. Further findings from the survey reveal the situation is more complex than simply not having enough small sizes.

“Women aren’t just scaled down versions of men,” said Teague. “The way PPE is manufactured today is they just make XXS. When women are sitting down, our hips are wider, our shoulder breadth is smaller. Proportionally, we are very different. So, when you take a coverall and just shrink it down, you have an inseam that can go down to someone’s knees, so you can imagine a woman climbing a ladder, they have to hike up their pant leg, which creates a safety issue.”

Women make up less than six per cent of the construction workforce. Ross is one of only two women working on the Broadway Subway tunnel compared to a couple hundred men. Simply put, there are far more men than women at work on construction sites.

Tradeswomen, their unions and even Tradetalk magazine have been talking about this issue for years, and yet the problem persists. So what is the solution? How do we ensure that PPE is actually available to women when they show up to work?

“It’s the chicken and the egg theory,” said Leanne Hughf, a business representative with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 (IUOE 115). “The big manufacturers aren’t making supplies because the suppliers aren’t needing them. There’s not a demand from the employers coming from the field… there needs to be a whole industry shift. And it’s just, which one is going to go first?”

Hughf believes it needs to start with the regulators. And the provincial government appears to agree.

On Oct. 17, 2023, at the BC Building Trades convention, Premier David Eby announced that the government would be clarifying and expanding the application of WorkSafeBC’s guidelines on PPE to ensure meaningful reform for people on the job of all shapes and sizes — especially women in the skilled trades — and increasing their compliance work to make sure that the rules are followed by employers.

“It’s women in the trades who are going to be leading this conversation with government to make sure that the reforms that we put in place are actually going to work for women on the job,” said Eby.

WorkSafeBC has occupational health and safety (OHS) regulations on PPE in place now that specify workers must wear properly-fitting PPE appropriate to the work being done and the hazards involved, that PPE itself must not create a hazard to the wearer and that it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure appropriate PPE is not only available to workers but also properly worn when required.

“The guidelines and requirements are quite clear,” said Suzana Prpic, senior manager of prevention field services with WorkSafeBC. “But things could still be improved.”

WorkSafeBC is currently conducting a preliminary analysis of its new 2024-2026 regulation workplan and says it continues to consult with and educate workers, employers and other stakeholders as well as enforce the current regulations.

“We hope to hear from everyone in the workforce that has a concern,” said Prpic. “PPE is the last line of protection. We hope that workers speak to their supervisors and it’s important for employers to engage workers in these discussions.”

Ultimately, WorkSafe says, PPE safety is a shared responsibility between the worker, the employer, the manufacturer and the regulators. But, as CSA research and dozens of anecdotes from tradeswomen have made clear, adequate PPE is not there for tradeswomen when they need it. Whether modified or not, improperly fitting PPE is a risk. Every item has to fit together in order to work.

“It’s not like they’re reinventing the wheel,” said Hughf. “The products are out there. They’re just overpriced. There are minimal amounts you can get locally. They’re buying from different countries and they don’t come with the CSA-approved stamp so they can’t even be worn here in the first place, but they are there.”

What needs to happen is a push on employers from a governing body, which in turn activates suppliers to seek out female-specific PPE from large local manufacturers who will then make products to meet the demand.

“Guidelines are great, but it’s not enough to enforce in the field at this point,” said Hughf. “If there was a regulation change, which I know is on the books for review with WorksafeBC right now, we might see some change. I’m very, very hopeful we’ll see some change.”

Editor’s Note: After making a number of phone calls, Jasmine Ross was able to obtain properly-fitting female fall protection harnesses for her and a co-worker at their job site. Great job, Jasmine!

By Tatiana Tomljanovic