Special Issues for Women in Safety: Women and PPE


Women and PPE Image

In this article, we’re going to introduce three special issues for women in occupational safety and health: PPE, getting women into leadership roles, and violence at the workplace. We’ll give a general introduction to both (thanks to work from the ASSP’s Women in Safety Excellence, or WISE, common interest group) and we’ll zero in on some problematic issues related to women and PPE.

We’ll be speaking with Abby Ferri, an ASSP member and a member of WISE who’s leading up the WISE effort to highlight problems with PPE for women and try to get some improvements. In future articles, we hope to talk with other WISE members about the issues related to workplace violence and leadership roles for women.

We’d like to thank Abby Ferri for her time in putting this interview together. You can listen to the interview in the video below or, if you’d prefer, we also typed up a transcript that’s available below the video/audio.

PPE Challenges for Women on the Job

Convergence Training: Hi everybody and welcome. This is Jeff Dalto of Convergence Training back again with another one of our webinar/audiocast/podcast series.

And today we’re in the world of Occupational Safety and Health. We have a special guest, Abby Ferri, and her dog Dozer. Abby is a Vice President in the national construction practice with Hays Company, an insurance company. She’s also, for the purposes of this discussion, a very active member in ASSP, an active member in the part of the ASSP called WISE, which is Women in Safety Excellence, and she’s a participant in something called the Women’s Workplace Safety Summit. And she’s going to tell us a little bit about that summit and report in addition to telling us about issues related to a woman and safety in general. She’s also going to be telling us specifically about woman and PPE and some problematic issues related to that. So with that, Abby, hello, and how are you today?

Abby Ferri: Hey, thank you for that very interesting introduction! I’m doing really well. Thank you.

Convergence Training: I’m glad. So we’ve warned everybody that we might hear your dog barking and in addition there’s a bird attacking my window as well. So we’ve got that out of the way.

Abby Ferri: And there’s a storm, so there’s a lot going on.

Getting to Know Abby Ferri, ASSP, and WISE

Convergence Training: Absolutely, a lot going on–but we’ll make it. 🙂

Can you tell us a little about yourself, Abby.

Abby Ferri: Sure. I consider myself a safety person. I don’t know if I have any other identity at the moment or over the past 16 years other than a safety professional, and my home industry that I prefer to work in is construction. That’s where I started right out of college, and that’s where I’m at now. Working with Hays in their national construction practice.

Convergence Training: Great. And what about your work with the ASSP and WISE? Can you tell us a little bit about that and about what WISE is in particular?

Abby Ferri: Definitely. So WISE is what’s called a common interest group that’s part of the American Society of Safety Professionals, or ASSP. And so when ASSP went through their name change from their former name ASSE, we had to change the E in WISE from “Engineering” to something. So Jamie Ingalls, one of our advisory committee members at WISE, suggested Excellence, and that stuck. And so we’re now Women in Safety Excellence, and the group has…I think we’re almost at 3,000 members. And so that’s a huge deal considering that people have to pay a little bit extra to be a part of this common interest group, and that they choose to do so.

So we’re happy to have the membership numbers that we do but even better, what I’ve learned from being the WISE administrator is that we have just a super highly engaged and activated membership. I would put our common interest group up against, not that it’s a competition, but I put us up against any practice specialty or other common interest group at ASSP as far as engagement from members. There’s something going on every single day with WISE, whether it’s celebrating something that a member has accomplished or helping a WISE member get through something at their organization. So the WISE group has been just one of the biggest benefits to me in my career. And it’s a reason that I stick with ASSP membership.

The Women’s Workplace Safety Summit

Convergence Training: Well as an ASSP member myself, and a member of the training and communications practice specialty, I will vouch for WISE and how active your members are. I entirely see that myself. And if you hadn’t said it, I might have said it as well. So they’re doing good work. If anybody’s interested in learning more about WISE, go check that out.

Abby, as part of WISE, you’ve been working in something called the Women’s Workplace Safety Summit. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Abby Ferri: Yes, so the idea for the Women’s Workplace Safety Summit originally came up, probably late 2017, early 2018 when Jim Smith was president of the ASSP at that time. He approached Kelly Bernish, who at that time was the administrator of WISE, about doing the summit, which was similar to something that the Hispanic safety professionals group had done already.

So we we thought it was a great idea, obviously, and just had to then figure out what are we going to approach, what are we trying to solve? What do we want to do? So the WISE Advisory Committee got together and really, it looked like any brainstorming session that you’ve probably seen with the huge Post-It notes on the walls and conversation everywhere.
And when you think of women and safety, or women in the workplace also, we came up with so many things that we wanted to look at further, or that we just want to solve. And there were three topics that emerged as the most pressing ones that we felt as a group within ASSP that we could have some pull and that we could really get something done.

So the WISE Advisory Committee, we took all these Post-It notes and great ideas and decided on three pillars or three main focus areas that we felt we could really have an impact on, realizing that as women safety professionals, that we have some concerns, but also and a lot of us would say more importantly, that the workers that we serve in our organizations, those women face a lot of adversity in the workplace.

The first topic is PPE fit. That topic was probably the first thing that anyone would suggest, and so we knew that was going to be one of the focus areas. Another topic is elevating women into leadership and executive roles in their organizations. Also part of that would be getting more women into the field to begin with as well, but mostly about advancing women into those really high up executive roles. And then the other topic is workplace violence, because homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. And often it’s perpetrated by someone that they know whether it’s a spouse, partner, former spouse or partner, or a client. Often where we’ve seen workplace violence be a big concern for people is in healthcare and social work and those types of fields where people are working in a very one-on-one manner with their clients, and the clients may have some–I don’t really know the right word to say–instabilities or other factors. So those are the three topics.

ASSP worked with us to have a place for the summit where it wasn’t going to be something that was just, hey, we’re focusing on these three topics, now let’s go for it. But we felt it was important to have a sense of community and some in-person conversations and facilitation and inviting people from outside the usual safety realm. There were many groups that we invited, and that did attend the summit, that usually you wouldn’t see it at ASSP events. So it was awesome to engage them and engage some of the usual suspects in a different way.

We held that first ever women’s workplace safety summit in October of 2018. And since then, we’ve been working on initiatives that were discussed and brought forward at the summit and continue to just keep rolling, because these issues haven’t gone away. In fact, some of them have either gotten worse or are currently elevated into more of a general scope as far as the mainstream and being in the media and something that people outside of safety are talking about.

Convergence Training: Great, great. I like I like that you brought in outsiders to talk about these issues. I think that’s a really productive way to problem solve.

So you’re here to talk about three big topics you guys are pushing. One of them has to do with violence in the workplace for women. We’ve already kind of touched on that a little bit at the Convergence Training blog with an interview with Hannah Curtis talking about the SHEWT study from University of Washington. So heads up on that for people out there listening.

Side note: Please see our interview with Hannah Curtis about the SHEWT study–Safety and Health Issues for Women in Construction Trades.

But you’re going to focus on the woman in PPE issue for the rest of this interview. Before you do though, if I recall correctly, there is a report that’s out now and three videos as well. Can you just briefly tell us what those are and I’ll make sure to get links in this article to those.

Abby Ferri: Yes, we came out with a technical report that goes a little bit deeper into the three issues that I mentioned and some of the data that made us decide to focus on these concerns. And then also some ideas on next steps and where we’re going with how to solve some of these problems. So that report, like you said, it can be downloaded. And it’s awesome for safety professionals, of course, but it’s something that I’m hoping safety professionals will share with other people in their organization. So people that are internal stakeholders to safety policies that safety professionals are very close with, maybe bringing in human resources, CFOs, CEOs, and also for field-level supervision as well. I think it’s really great information for pretty much anyone in the workplace that is concerned about what their workers are facing.

And there’s a video for each of the pillars–PPE, women in leadership and executive leadership roles, and workplace violence. Each of those topics has kind of like a preview video, like a trailer for their piece of the report where multiple people that were at the safety summit were interviewed on site to just to get some more background on why we’re studying these things and a bit about where we’re going.

So I’ll make sure you have those links so people can see those as well and get an idea for some of the other people that were involved in this process.

Side note: Find the report here; a press release here; and the three videos on the ASSP Vimeo channel here (search for video titles that begin with “ASSP Women and Safety”).

Problems Related to Women and PPE in the Workplace

Convergence Training: Great, thanks so much. Okay.

So what we’re hoping to hear from you today is about a woman and PPE. Maybe you could start by telling us just a little bit about what the general situation is with woman and PPE at the workplace.

Abby Ferri: Yeah, so women are all different shapes and sizes. And one of the key issues that jumped out at me a few years ago when I got involved with WISE, and also at our fashion show that we have every year at the ASSP convention, is that women were modifying different parts of their their PPE or work apparel and in doing so that it would either violate what the manufacturer recommendations for using the equipment for or it would just it would be so obvious that they modified their equipment and make the worker look like she didn’t know what she was doing. And that really struck me because some of the people that were modifying the equipment–the example that I use, all the time is coveralls, fire-resistant coveralls–was that these women were in safety, that should know better. And they felt they didn’t have any other option but to modify their gear. And so that topic, it’s just it’s very interesting to me because there’s the psychological aspect of it.

You can say, oh, it’s just that we’ve got to find the right stuff to fit people. Well, when you talk to people that have had these issues in the workplace, and it could be that you’re short and skinny, or that you are short and curvy, or at the other side of the spectrum that you’re super tall and lanky, or just everything, every shape and size that you can think of, that people haven’t been able to find the right fit. So you can imagine, especially if you’re on those outside margins, maybe you already kind of stick out to people in your workplace as looking different because of your shape or size. And now it’s made even worse because your PPE doesn’t fit you or the employer has a fit because they have to now buy special things for one worker, and they’re not happy about that. So the psychological impact has been pretty big because workers may just modify their PPE and like I said, it might not offer them the proper protection, or they know that it’s not offering them the proper protection, but they’d rather look more like they know what they’re doing by trying to make their PP or work apparel fit them.

Or, on the flip side, and I’m guilty of judging a little bit on this, take a hard hat, for example. You can ratchet down the hard hat or size it down to the smallest size and there are still people for whom that isn’t good enough. And the hard hat will flop to one side or the other. And when I see that on a job site, if someone’s hard hat is kind of askew off to the side one way or the other, to me, it signals that person doesn’t know what the heck they’re doing, and then you come to find out it’s because they can’t get the proper fit from the PPE.

So a person that knows that they’re walking around with their their PPE not fitted properly, they know that people are judging them. They know that people think they don’t know what they’re doing, and that can wear on a person. And in the case of many women, we’ve seen that people have even just exited the workplace all together because their employer wouldn’t listen to them when they need the proper gear, or they just felt they had to make do with what they had, but then they didn’t feel safe. So they’ve left left these workplaces. So then it becomes a retention issue as well.

What’s “Shrink and Pink” and What’s Wrong With It?

Convergence Training: Okay, great, great intro to that.

So one of the terms I’ve learned from you is a phrase called “shrink and pink.” Can you? Can you tell us what what that means and what’s wrong with it? Why We Need something better?

Abby Ferri: Yeah. So you have to be careful when you look up certain things on your favorite search engine, such as “women and hard hats” or “women’s safety equipment,” because you’ll either find something that’s not safe for work OR it’ll be something likely that’s pink or purple.

And when I’ve talked to vendors about that, just ask the casual question of “do you have any PPE that’s geared towards women?” and they’ll show me “Oh, look, we have these pink gloves and it’s tiny.” And I’m just thinking, “Okay, you know, I, my hands are smaller than some guys, you know, on the job site, but I don’t have small, small hands and I definitely don’t want to wear pink.”

And there are women that, sure they like to wear pink or purple or those types of colors at the job site. But from my experience, I don’t like it. And there’s many women that don’t like it either. So, and the whole problem is, is that when these PPE and apparel manufacturers just give women stuff that’s pink, it’s not rooted in any science. Where does science or data point to that women’s PPE will protect them or fit better if it’s pink? That doesn’t make any sense. And there’s been vendors that WISE has done outreach with to make sure that they understand that women’s sizing doesn’t just mean smaller version of men sizing, that there’s a lot of different fit concerns with women that they may be curvy, and so they need a short, a smaller size as far as length, but as far as width they need some more width. So making sure that there’s options available for all body types.

And I want to bring up an issue too that’s come up since we’ve been elevating a lot of this PPE fit conversation. I’ve had men contact me and say, “Well, men need all sizes too.” And this is true. And it’s not something that we’ve tried to run away from or, or negate at all, but in bringing up the fit issues that women have on all ends of the spectrum, and having greater size options available, it’s going to benefit the men that are not big and tall, they’re bigger and taller, or they’re shorter and thinner. And so it’s going to benefit them too, that’s a good point.

Convergence Training: So, we talked about shrink and pink. You talked about how was someone that might want to wear pink other people might not and maybe it might not help a woman fit in or she might not feel respected if she’s wearing pink.

But you also mentioned, it’s not simply an issue of shrinking PPE to fit a man’s PPE to a woman because there’s different proportions going on. And then you talked about the fact that both men and women have a need for diverse sizes of PPE. And I have a follow-up question for you on that one. Because I’m sure it’s true for men. But I’m also sure because there are probably more men than women in a lot of these workforces. So there’s more economic incentive for producers to make those outlier sizes for men and maybe a little bit less of an economic incentive for those same producers to make those outliers sizes that are proportion for women. Is that an issue you run into? And do you have any thoughts about how to get over that hurdle?

Abby Ferri: Absolutely, yes. And this is something that came up in our PPE work group at the summit, is that often it’s cost-prohibitive for an employer to make available just a couple of smaller sizes and just a couple of the larger sizes. So then they just don’t. And I know from in the past at job sites, they just throw you a large or extra large vest and large gloves. And that’s what you wear. You just make do with it. And people think that large, extra large, or maybe large to double extra large is the one size fits most. And so they think we’ll just do that and it’ll be fine.

And something that we talked about at the summit was that I mean, look at the availability of products that we can get for the home and clothing that we can buy for ourselves and it’s at our door in two days or less. Why is it not that way with PPE? Why would a manufacturer have to enforce this minimum quantity for a contractor in Los Angeles when there’s a warehouse that’s probably nearby that could serve New York, Dallas, Minneapolis, it could serve all of us, and we could all order that equipment and have it within a couple of days, no minimum order or with a smaller minimum order than in the past.

So we have found that a lot of the pushback is on the purchasing, where the people may just not be aware that there’s other options available that are making the purchasing decisions. Or they just decide, well, if I have to buy five of those in order to make the the order work, that they just won’t do it.

But just need better education on the part of the purchasers and the employers, and also better options being made available by those manufacturers and distribution warehouses.

Hazards Created Women Women Have to Modify PPE

Convergence Training: All right, great, thank you. So lets get drilling down on this fit issue.

Can you tell us more about what a woman sometimes is forced to do when they’re provided with PPE that doesn’t fit. Maybe you can give us some examples and maybe some examples of how that increases hazards or increases danger on the job.

Abby Ferri: Definitely. So with with the fire-resistant coveralls, people were cutting the sleeves or cutting the pant legs and then rolling them up. And I know that’s against those manufacturer’s instructions for those garments because they’re made a certain way to protect the employees.

So that’s one thing that people are doing with safety vests. I’ve seen people are told to just deal with it where you’re walking around and you’ve got your average-size person and you have this double-extra-large or extra-large vest on because that’s what was available. So you just look kind of silly. So you make do.

The other option is that people have gone out and purchased their own equipment and at their own cost. And that presents a lot of issues too as far as employers being required to provide certain PPE for workers, if they’re technically not making the option available and the workers going out and buying some that fits them, that the employer is at risk for getting some trouble there as well.

Next Steps for WISE & the Women and PPE Issue

Convergence Training: Gotcha, gotcha. Alright. So your committee as I understand it has identified some next steps and some additional ways to gather more information. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? What’s next?

Abby Ferri: Yeah, so one of the big things that we came up with with the PPE group is that we needed more data to go on because safety professionals and the people making purchasing decisions, they want to see the information, they want to see the data on why this is important.

And the thing is, is that many studies and the way that PPE is tested is often based on men or a man of an average size. So there’s the data that’s out there, realizing there are numbers, but those numbers may not reflect what women are actually looking for with their PPE.

We’ve also been involved and have some representation with the Z359 Fall Protection/Prevention standard committee. And so that’s been leading to some really interesting conversations that could be applied to almost any type of PPE, where we’re looking at fits guidelines.

For example, instead of sizing things with a letter, like S for small, M for medium, and L for large, why not do sizing based on actual measurements? So that someone can understand, “Oh, I’m five foot nine and this many pounds, this size fall protection harness would probably be better for me,” instead of just guessing or going off a single letter.
I know in the past when I’ve asked workers, mostly men, to tell me what size they are…guess what sizes they say they are.

Convergence Training: I’m guessing they say large?

Abby Ferri: Yes. Yes. So that goes for fall protection harnesses and respirators. And often when you actually do the measurements or they try things on, you find that that’s not the size that the person truly is.

Convergence Training: There may be a little machismo to this the assumption they were all size L.

Abby Ferri: Yeah, yeah. And then who knows, maybe you would ask us women and we’d all say a size smaller, right?

So with women’s apparel, the sizing is so problematic anyway, it’s almost it’s the same as what we’ve dealt with in department stores and buying clothes for years. The whole vanity sizing thing, and also no continuity in sizes.

So look at how men usually purchase jeans, you want to know your inseam, and you want to know your waist measurement. For women, when we go and purchase jeans, it’s a number, and that number varies between brands and right in the same store.

And I remember going through the ASSP Expo last year and there was a brand that was really excited to show us their women’s clothing. And it was numbered sizing but it was numbered odd numbers. Whereas with women sizing, it’s typically even numbers such as 6, 8, 10, 12 and onward. And using odd numbers is indicative of juniors sizes. So there’s that aspect, that education piece on how to use even size numbers or how to express what the sizes are for the equipment or the apparel.

Another thing that came out of our action items related to the sizing are those fit guidelines, and then also potential for more end users to actually try different equipment before it hits the market. There have been some fall protection harnesses and some other equipment in the past that a manufacturer thinks they’re coming up with the latest and greatest and let’s gear this towards women. And then women try it out and it doesn’t have that intended impact. It’s not really solving any problems. But if they had involved some women end users earlier in the process, they could have worked through some of those issues and came up with a better product before they went to market. So again, this came from a meeting from that fall protection discussion. There’s some manufacturers that are now seeing the light and trying to assemble focus groups of women to actually try out their products to make sure that they are meeting the real demands of what women need on the job site.

PPE Ratings and Reviews

Convergence Training: Great, great. Now that last point about getting input from a woman, is that related to the needs that your organization had identified for PPE ratings and reviews or is that an additional point I should be asking you about?

Abby Ferri: It relates to it. Yeah. So we talked about product modeling, and then also about ratings and reviews similar to like, if you go, well, any shopping online, we all read the reviews. So being able to have some kind of mechanism to get those reviews and ratings and to be able to see that as someone makes purchasing decisions to see what are the common fit issues or what are people saying. Is it really a true large or is it not true to size? Does it run small, does it run large? Things like that so people can make better purcha

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