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From hardhats to boots: PPE Is keeping women from the trades

Poorly fitting safety gear is dangerous, and a fact of life for women in construction.
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Jodi Huettner’s struggles to find PPE that worked for women led her to create her own company to fill the gap.

Leanne Hughf found her fit in construction, but nothing in construction fit her. 

Her high-visibility vest  hung off her shoulders. Empty nubs of fabric sat at the fingertips of  oversized gloves. When she bought special no-grip shoes for paving  asphalt, the smallest size didn’t fit her even when she wore two pairs  of socks. “It’s like wearing clown shoes,” Hughf said. 

British Columbia’s construction industry  and the provincial government have spent years attempting to encourage  more women to work in the sector, both as a push for equity and to fill a  growing need for those skilled workers.  

But virtually all of the personal  protective equipment that keeps those workers safe is designed for men,  something tradeswomen like Hughf say is both a safety risk and an  example of the barriers women face in those male-dominated professions. 

“All you want to do is do your job,” said  Hughf, a heavy equipment operator who now works as a business  representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local  115. “But if you don’t have the proper tools to do your job, why would  you want to continue doing it?”

A November report  by the Canadian Standards Association found 92 per cent of about 500  women construction workers surveyed reported one or more problems with  personal protective equipment. 

Across the 3,000 women in various  professions the CSA polled, only six per cent regularly wore PPE that  was actually designed for women.  

It’s not just a matter of comfort.  Hughf has seen workers with baggy vests get dragged down a highway when a  piece of fabric is snagged by a moving car. She’s had the tips of  gloves caught in manhole lids and seen tradeswomen fumble with baggy  coveralls while climbing ladders. 

The CSA survey found almost four in 10  women in the trades had suffered an injury they believed was a direct or  indirect result of their equipment. Nearly a fifth said they had  considered leaving the profession altogether because of challenges  finding appropriate gear. 

Even when workers do find gear that fits,  Hughf said, they often pay hundreds of dollars because their employers  won’t provide it. In other cases, they improve what’s available, using  safety pins or sewing needles to modify safety gear for a better fit. 

“The issue is not that nothing exists. It’s  that it’s not being made available widely” said Brynn Bourke, the  executive director of the BC Building Trades. 

The right fit 

Jodi Huettner’s passion for PPE came, in part, out of a need to pee. 

A decade ago, Huettner was working as an  environmental engineer, a job that often brought her out to site  assessments in the wilderness with teams that were entirely or  predominately male. 

She was especially aware of this when she had to go to the bathroom. 

“My male counterparts could literally pee  while sampling a well,” she said. But her gear — the coveralls, the tool  belt — clearly were not made with her anatomy in mind. She often had to  hitch a ride to the only bathroom at the worksite, which sometimes  meant driving 20 minutes away. 

That’s when Huettner began experimenting  with “Frankenstein-ing” her gear, adding flaps and making adjustments so  it worked for her body and her job. It was a service she would later  offer to female colleagues. 

Eventually, it became Helga  Wear, a Vancouver company founded by Huettner specializing in women’s  PPE — a product many major manufacturers simply don’t make. 

Huettner said those larger companies often  label smaller men’s products as being designed for women. But proper PPE  is about more than just size: most women have different dimensions in  the chest, shoulders head and hips that also affect the fit of the  clothing, Huettner said. Their feet may also arch differently. That  means the smaller versions of men’s clothing still create excess fabric  and improper fits that can be uncomfortable, and even dangerous.  

“It’s all for men, so what’s they’re saying  is: women are nothing more than scaled-down versions of men, and we can  get by with wearing the smaller sizes of men’s PPE, which is just  completely not true,” Huettner said. 

It is not a problem that solely affects  women. Transgender and non-binary people, Hughf said, may have bodies  that do not neatly align with the select range of sizes provided for  cisgender men.  

But the issue is deeply felt by women in  the trades, in part because more and more are entering industries that  are still dominated by men. 

Last fall, the BC Construction Association  reported that roughly 5.7 per cent of the more than 200,000 workers in  the sector were women. That’s far from parity, but is 24 per cent higher  than three years prior. 

That increase has come after years of  advocacy from industry, government and labour groups encouraging women  to enter the trades. 

A 2021 Labour Market Forecast predicts B.C.  will have 85,000 new job openings in the skilled trades and more than  70,000 in the construction sector by 2031, most of them to replace  retiring workers. The federal and provincial governments both offer  financial incentives to women hoping to apprentice in the skilled  trades, something unions have also supported. 

But those professions are a long way from  parity. A 2017 report into the experiences of women in the trades  identified a range of systemic barriers keeping women out of the sector,  ranging from gender-based discrimination and bullying to hiring  practices. It also found the retention rates for female apprentices  lagged behind the rates for men, even when the lower overall entry rate  for the trades was taken into account: in 2013, for example, only 4.4 of  registered apprentices in B.C. who completed their training were women.  

“I hear from women who say that they need  to feel brave to go into work,” said Karen Dearlove, the executive  director of the BC Centre for Women in the Trades. “They need to have a  thick skin. And I tell them, that shouldn’t be in your job description.”  

That 2017 report also mentioned PPE, which  for many women is a physical reminder of the systemic barriers they face  in the trades. 

“No one wants to work where they feel like  they’re not part of the thing at the onset when they put the safety gear  on,” said Dave Baspaly, president of the Council of Construction  Associations. He said more and more employers are willing to pay the  extra cost to offer that gear. Construction giant EllisDon recently  launched a campaign to offer safety vests to women and other workers  “whose frame and body type are not best served by traditional vest  offerings.” 

But most companies aren’t there yet. 

In theory, existing B.C. regulations  already require companies to provide PPE that fits correctly. WorkSafeBC  issued a new guideline on its rules last year, acknowledging protective  clothing has traditionally been made for men and stating employers have  an obligation to make sure PPE fits properly. But those rules aren’t  necessarily being enforced. 

In theory, B.C.’s government could change  regulations or laws to explicitly require that employers provide PPE  that fits women and people of other gender identities. 

But Baspaly doesn’t think that would work,  either, because multinational construction PPE manufacturers often don’t  make gear for women because of how small the market is. Even if B.C.  made it mandatory, Baspaly said, its population alone is too small to  sway company decisions on that level. That’s left the market to  “boutique” and small-scale manufacturers like Helga Wear.

“The manufacturers are looking at large  market penetration in big urban centres,” Baspaly argued. “When we move  and if everyone else moves, they consider it, but they don’t necessarily  move with us.” 

Then there’s the Canadian Standards  Association, who set industry benchmarks for equipment like PPE across  the country. That group did commission a survey into PPE for women and  said in a November press release that it “has started to assess its  existing portfolio of PPE standards to determine opportunities for  improvement as it relates to women.” But changes resulting from that  will likely take time, Hughf said. 

The result is a waiting game. Governments  haven’t forcefully regulated it, because manufacturers don’t make it.  Manufacturers don’t make it because businesses aren’t asking for it. And  businesses aren’t asking for it, in some cases, because they don’t have  to. 

That’s not to say things aren’t changing.  Hughf recently negotiated a collective agreement for some International  Union of Operating Engineers members with an explicit clause that the  employer must provide properly fitting PPE for people of all genders. 

And Helga Wear, Huettner’s company, has  seen a swell of business. Originally, Huettner said, many in the  industry dismissed her idea, saying the status quo of using men’s PPE  was fine. She was doing “the Craigslist Hustle,” working a series of odd  jobs to finance her business. Her home base was a shipping container on  Mitchell Island, beneath the Knight Street bridge.

But she’s attracted a growing stream of  business and admirers. Helga Wear turned a profit for the first time  last year. She has now moved to office space on Frances Street in East  Vancouver that she shares with another business and Leeloo, a Maltese  toy poodle named for the character from The Fifth Element. 

In some ways, Huettner said, the problem  with PPE is a broader symptom of design standards that often take mens’  bodies as the “default” without consideration of how the same product  may not work for other people. 

Her hope is that her little boutique firm can be part of turning that story around, one vest at a time. 

“I’m going to keep talking to anyone who will listen to me about exactly this,” she said.

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

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