A rallying call for PPE for all

Sandi Rhys Jones is president of the Chartered Institute of Building

Having launched the Chartered Institute of Building’s (CIOB’s) #PPEthatfits campaign last summer, it was really encouraging to hear the subject raised in Parliament by Labour MP Emma Hardy recently.

“Women’s bodies, including our feet, aren’t simply smaller versions of men’s bodies and feet”

Hardy’s proposal of a Personal Protective Equipment at Work (Protected Characteristics) Bill is very much welcomed and would most certainly be the wake-up call many employers need. It would also hopefully result in progress being made when it comes to the design, manufacture and procurement of PPE. As we know, some employers already try to do the right thing but are hampered by procurement teams who simply reorder the usual clothing or are unaware that there are appropriate products available. That is why one of the first actions in the CIOB campaign was to provide an online resource of the manufacturers both here and abroad who supply #ppethatfits, with help from Katherine Evans of Bold as Brass and Sophie Lydia Perkins of Atkins.

While the CIOB’s first priority is and always will be the built environment sector and those it builds for, we’ve always hoped our campaign calling for better fitting PPE, not only for women but people of all shapes, sizes and faiths, would cross over into other industries that use PPE to keep workers safe. Having the issue discussed in Parliament certainly means we’re on the right track.

While some may think the PPE problem is only for those who work in roles requiring PPE, it should be noted that others can be put at risk by unsuitable equipment. Visitors to sites, including politicians, the media and members of the public, need access to protective clothing too. Many, I’m sure, will know exactly what it feels like to be given a poorly fitting high-vis jacket, lab coat or safety shoes upon arrival at a building site or hospital, or when shadowing emergency services or armed forces workers. Then to be told you’ll have to ‘make do’ while feeling like a child borrowing a parent’s clothes and looking like a fool. Appearances aside, PPE that doesn’t fit risks lives.

When it comes to PPE for women, the old adage of ‘shrink it and pink it’ needs pensioning off. Some women are larger than some men, so size isn’t the issue, and it’s worth adding that in my experience nobody has called for pink PPE. Indeed, when it comes to high-vis there are specific industry colour requirements. Fit is about shape. Women’s bodies, including our feet, aren’t simply smaller versions of men’s bodies and feet. This assumption has gone on for too long.

Supporting a diverse workforce

It has recently been acknowledged that women football and rugby players have been injured by wearing boots traditionally designed for a male foot. Body armour for police and the armed forces was also designed for the male shape and there are tragic examples of women officers being unprotected or hampered as a result. The same goes for masks and headwear too, with recognition during the Covid pandemic that mask design is based on the Sheffield model – white, clean-shaven man – with no accounting for the fact that users are far more diverse.

If industries that rely on PPE want to attract a diverse range of talent, then change is needed, and this is part of the reason I started the CIOB campaign. It has been so encouraging to see the response from a cross-section of industry, including the BSI’s head of standards-makers engagement & inclusion Stephanie Eynon, who helped us to engage across sectors and develop guidance documents.

It’s common knowledge there’s an ongoing skills crisis, yet as an industry, we don’t seem to recognise the reality that many people are turned off construction careers because they don’t see it as being a place for them. At the very least, providing everyone with the fundamental kit to keep them safe regardless of their gender, size or religion has to become standard if we are to welcome a wider pool of people into the sector.

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