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Sourcing PPE for women

Sourcing the right clothing, equipment for all members of your team.

Safety | April 1, 2022 | By: Sigrid Tornquist

Fit and function cannot be separated when it comes to protective clothing—and yet for years, anyone who didn’t possess a “typical” male body-type standard needed to make do if they wanted to work in fields that rely on wearing protective clothing. For the most part, women who wanted to work in those fields were entirely left out of the design equation—and consequently were put at risk. Now, thanks to the dedicated efforts of innovative designers, that is no longer the case.

Same materials, different design

Protective clothing needs to meet the specific safety requirements of the user’s job, whether that be protection from heat, chemicals, cold or any challenging environment. Additionally, the clothing needs to allow mobility. “If your clothing has protective properties, but you can’t move safely, the effectiveness of the PPE [personal protective equipment] drops significantly,” says Emelia Black, product designer, sustainability manager for DragonWear® at True North Gear®, Seattle, Wash. “Quality is also a major factor. If your seam rips while you’re in a dangerous environment, you’re suddenly exposed to the hazards that the clothing was protecting you against.”

Designers working within the protective clothing space are rejecting the “pink it and shrink it” strategy, which has historically taken an existing product made for men and simply made it smaller and pink. “Everyone who has shopped for heavy-duty women’s jeans knows the dreaded super-thin denim with tiny pockets design that is all too common,” Black says. “It’s important to us to use the same materials in our women’s PPE as our men’s, and to have the same functionality in the design. Pink it and shrink it as a design philosophy for women’s PPE is a cheap shortcut that could lead to safety issues.

“Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pink PPE if the jobsite allows it and it is the customer’s style,” she continues. “But it better be designed for a wide variety of women’s figures and offer the correct mobility, functionality and protection.”

Women, on average, per the general U.S. female population, vary greatly in their anthropometric proportions, compared to the male human form, according to Florida State University’s Meredith McQuerry PhD, director of the Textile Testing Laboratory in Tallahassee, Fla. “For example, women’s waist-to-hip ratio can vary more than 12 inches, compared to men’s, which typically only varies by 5 inches, on average.”

What makes this difficult from a design perspective is the fact that women’s shapes tend to differ more greatly from one woman to another than men’s do. “Men’s shapes tend to be straight up and down with a larger chest and smaller hips, whatever the size,” says Rosalie Lovett, senior designer at True North Gear. “Some women are pear shaped, some heart shaped, some more rectangular shaped. Some women have large breasts, and some have small. We have to create one garment for all those shapes.”

While the proportions of protective clothing need to vary to accommodate both male and female proportions, the materials do not. “When it comes to protective clothing systems, the protection requirements are not gender specific,” says Clare King, president of Pawtucket, R.I.-based Propel LLC, a textile product innovation company that focuses primarily on the U.S. Military and Fire Service markets. “What is critical for PPE for women is the garment fit. A garment that is unisex or designed to a men’s fit and sizing system may present serious safety issues if a woman had to wear the same. For example, sleeves that are too long can be a hazard, as can a garment that is too wide or too long.”

Although fit for women is more of an issue due to existing standards, it’s not a gender-specific need. The bottom line is “that it is a work hazard when your clothes do not fit properly,” Lovett says. “If you need to hike up your pants to bend over or squat, you might drop your tools. We have found that the fabric weight and breathability is not just a woman’s issue—we think about men and women as the same.”

Demand for protective clothing for women is growing, even though it is still the smaller segment of the market. “The market has been growing slightly over the past few years,” Lovett says. “What has changed is that we are acknowledging the need and have committed to providing for women regardless of the exact profitability of doing so.”

The bottom line for women’s protective clothing is—always—safety, no matter what the market share, McQuerry says.  

Sigrid Tornquist is a Minneapolis, Minn.-based writer and editor and a former InTents editor. 

SIDEBAR: OSHA on personal protective equipment

The required safety clothing and equipment varies depending on the location and work being done, but OSHA generally defines personal protective equipment (PPE) as any equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. All PPE should be safely designed and constructed, and should be maintained in a clean and reliable fashion. It should fit comfortably, encouraging worker use. If the personal protective equipment does not fit properly, it can make the difference between being safely covered or dangerously exposed. When engineering, work practice, and administrative controls are not feasible or do not provide sufficient protection, employers must provide personal protective equipment to their workers and ensure its proper use

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