For a long time, Phoenix Local 640 member Xan Folmer just dealt with the risks associated with ill-fitting fall harnesses and other personal protective equipment.
"I didn't know any better," said the journeyman wirewoman. "Nobody told me there were other options, so I just used the harnesses and prayed I wouldn't have to get a mastectomy."
The harnesses used on many job sites require the chest strap to be fit right at the bust line, leaving those with breasts with few options, none of which are truly safe. Wear it as designed and risk damaging breast tissue, or wear it above or below and run the risk of a strap snapping or sliding out altogether.
"Those things are just not designed with women in mind," said Folmer, who is also a steward.
|Phoenix Local 640 Women's Committee head Sierra English is working with NECA and others on providing better-fitting PPE for the growing number of women in her local.
|Martinez, Calif., Local 302 member Cheyenne Lucero proudly sports a proper-fitting flash suit. "With the first one I wore, the inseam was down to my knees," she recalled.
Fortunately, Folmer was able to persuade her employer to invest in better-fitting harnesses. But she's far from alone when it comes to getting the right safety gear.
Roughly 4% of construction workers in the U.S. and Canada are women, but those numbers are growing. They'll have to if contractors want to keep up with the increasing demand for skilled tradespeople. But in order to keep everyone safe, they'll also need to take a look at their PPE supply.
According to a survey of 2,635 tradeswomen and nonbinary tradespeople by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, only 19% said they were always provided with gloves or safety equipment in sizes that fit. A survey by the Center for Construction Research and Training found that nearly 9 in 10 women said they'd experienced such a problem.
A Canadian study of roughly 3,000 women found similar results. It also noted that there's a "shrink it and pink it" mentality among manufacturers, where they take PPE designed for men, make it smaller and pink, then sell it as PPE for women, sidestepping any differences in body type.
"Despite scientific evidence that anthropometric differences exist between men and women, PPE continues to be designed for 'all workers' based almost entirely on male anthropometry. In reality, what this means is that most PPE standards are not gender neutral, but 'gender blind,'" the authors wrote.
Local 640 member Sierra English works in energized maintenance, where flame-retardant suits are a necessity. They also almost always come in sizes made for men. Wearing pants that are too big isn't just uncomfortable. In electrified environments, overly baggy PPE can just as easily create danger as protect a worker from it. When English brought this up to her general foreman and asked for better-fitting pants, his response was less than helpful.
Eventually, English got the right pants. And as the head of her local's Women's Committee, she's working with Folmer and others, including the Arizona chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, to make sure other sisters have an easier time getting what they need.
"It's been very effective having a Women's Committee," she said. "It gives you an official channel."
Even when a foreman is on board, sourcing can be an obstacle.
Martinez, Calif., Local 302 Recording Secretary Cheyenne Lucero has had contractors tell her they couldn't order gloves or safety vests in her correct size because they aren't made that small. Or when they did, the items took longer to arrive. Boots are another challenge.
"In one case, I needed to buy specific boots for a job, and when I went to the store and gave them my size, the associate replied, 'That's child-labor size,'" said Lucero, who sits on Local 302's safety committee.
In addition to the very real issues of protection, or being sent home because there isn't any proper-fitting PPE, are the harder-to-calculate concerns, like standing out even more than you already do.
"It can make us feel like we aren't being taken seriously," Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 member Casey Aelbers said. "We experience imposter syndrome as it is. It doesn't help when you look like you're playing dress-up in men's clothing."
Tradeswomen often want to blend in and not be seen as "high maintenance," said Los Angeles Local 11 apprentice Dannielle Lewis about asking for something that others may see as frivolous.
"Being called a 'princess' is annoying when all you want to do is be safe and efficient," she said. "It makes me not want to say anything because being the only African American woman on site can be hard enough. I don't want my crew and supervisors to see me as unprofessional or unrelatable."
Lewis said she also runs into difficulties around hard hats and hair.
"We're asked to tuck our hair into our hard hats at my site. If I have braids or my afro, that's a mission. I am constantly pulling my hair down so that it's flat," she said. "I'm pretty sure I'll be bald by the time I journey out. On the bright side, I'll be able to afford wigs by then."
On another bright side, Lewis has her local's support.
"My local has pushed to bring more women into the trade, starting with PPE. Our safety director makes it a point to go to sites and speak to women about their safety issues," Lewis said. "Our Women's Committee has also surveyed its members, and our local is listening."
Like a lot of tradeswomen, Lewis said resolving PPE issues has been a mixed bag, but her employer has been responsive.
"Because I've struggled and communicated that to them, they better understand my issues," she said. "I now have a vest that fits perfectly, and it has a ton of pockets!"
A rule being considered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration could also help. It would revise its PPE standard in construction to explicitly require that the equipment fit properly. OSHA rules can take years to be implemented, but it's a step in the right direction, said Nashville, Tenn., Local 429 member Heather Tatum.
"It'll be a major milestone for women in the trades," said Tatum, who works as an OSHA instructor. "We deserve PPE that fits without feeling like we're asking for a special provision."
Lewis and Lucero said they'd like to see vendors that cater to women at events like the Safety Conference and the Women's Conference. Just don't make everything pink, Lucero cautioned.
"Most women just want to work and be great at their trade," she said. "We don't need options that draw additional attention."
English noted that providing proper-fitting PPE is a way to demonstrate a company's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
"Better PPE can help women feel like they belong," she said.
The CPWR has compiled a list of female-friendly PPE on its website. Some women have found support and recommendations through different social media channels, like the Safety Rack, which reviews PPE for women. Resources, while not as plentiful as they could be, are out there. Never forget that the IBEW is one of them, said Safety Director Mark MacNichol.
"Safety is what the IBEW was founded on. It goes all the way back to Henry Miller and why we were founded," he said. "The goal is always to go home from work the same way you got there."
Or, as Lewis put it: "Don't compromise on safety. Your life is worth more than the PPE will cost."
NECA, the IBEW and the Electrical Training Alliance are planning to launch a campaign that will address many of these issues, said Debra Margraf, who serves as executive director of NECA's Arizona chapter and is working with English, Folmer and others.
"NECA and IBEW have the power to get the manufacturers to listen and create more products," Margraf said. "That's important, especially as we try to include more women in the trades."