A Guide to Sourcing Inclusive PPE for Diverse Teams

Is your PPE stock offering workers full protection? Worse, is some of your PPE actually a hazard? Your PPE stocks may be well-sourced and managed, but if they’re not inclusive, they could be adding risk for your workers.

The Safesite team talked to female construction leaders about this issue, and we learned that it’s incredibly common for employers to provide over-sized or one-size-fits-all PPE to women on construction sites. Companies hand women oversized and poor-fitting PPE, or they give them a smaller size of men’s PPE, which still doesn’t fit.

It’s a big problem for both workers and employers: buying protective equipment that doesn’t fit correctly means the wearer doesn’t get the same protection. Worse, ill-fitting PPE can get in the way of workers doing their job correctly and even present new hazards.

So, we’re talking about inclusive PPE —  what it is, why you need, it and how to get it. Let’s get started.

What is Inclusive PPE?

Cropped Woman Construction Acnsc Safesite.png
Every worker needs PPE, but not all PPE fits every worker.

How tempting is it to buy a run of PPE in the most common sizes and hand them out?

It’s a scene that happens across workplaces in all industries. Working this way seems like common sense, and doing so may save time and money (initially). Yet, failing to account for different sizes and shapes and fits leaves your team members at risk of injury.

Poorly-fitted PPE isn’t just a problem in construction or trades, which are dominated by men of common sizes and builds. It’s even a problem in hospitals, where the workforce tends to be more diverse than construction and care teams tend to skew female. In the UK, female nurses were more likely to get COVID-19 because only three in ten women had PPE fitted to the female frame.

So what’s inclusive PPE?

Inclusive PPE programs feature PPE that caters to people of different:

  • sexes
  • sizes
  • abilities
  • cultures

Buying inclusive PPE isn’t just a job imperative. It’s another way of letting your team know that you’re happy they’re here and you care about their safety. So, it also contributes to retention and productivity, two more factors in health and safety.

Inclusive PPE Minimizes Risk for ALL Workers

Inclusive PPE is about more than “buying PPE for women”. It’s about accounting for the fact that the human body and personal requirements vary between people based on factors like their sex, height, weight, abilities, and even their culture.

Humans don’t come in average sizes. So, buying a run of L and XL sizes and hoping for the best leaves holes that impact your team’s safety. 

Here’s an example that can (and does) happen across all industries.

Someone on a job site with small hands gets a pair of XL safety gloves. Because their gloves don’t fit, they won’t be able to perform their job function correctly. They may:

  • struggle with the grip because the gloves are too big
  • get their gloves caught in machinery
  • loose fine motor skills and dexterity
  • choose not to wear gloves because wearing XL gloves can feel more dangerous than not wearing any hand protection at all

All of these outcomes leave them vulnerable to hand injuries.

What’s more, the wrong PPE can also leave workers feeling like they’re not an equal part of the team.

Here’s another scenario Safesite heard multiple times. An organization might buy a run of nice fleeces for the whole team as a gesture of camaraderie. But if you give a size S woman a size XL fleece, then she is unlikely to wear it because it’s far too big. She may even feel less like she’s a valued part of the team. In this way, a lack of inclusivity is a morale and productivity issue, which are also further health and safety issues.

What Kinds of Inclusive PPE Are Out There?

Safety professional using safety software
Finding PPE built for different frames ensures the gear is full effective against hazards.

There is an increasing amount of PPE made specifically for women, in particular, as well as people of different sizes, abilities, and cultures.

You can find inclusive PPE including:

  • Hi-vis clothing for women’s builds
  • Maternity PPE to cater to pregnant people
  • Extra small and small safety glove and safety boot sizes
  • Jackets for people of varying heights
  • High-vis clothing and accessories for wheelchair users
  • Fall protection for women’s frames
  • Compression PPE for women
  • PPE for Muslim women

However, not all women are the same size. So you also need to account for every employee’s height and body shape, which can mean a good bit of conversation and trial and error. As Laura Casey, CSP, CHST, and safety consultant at J.J. Keller, told us, “There are brands for women’s PPE and workwear, but there’s still a disparity in regards to sizes and shapes.”

In other words, go a step beyond buying diverse types of gear and make sure you’re buying the PPE your team needs.

Make Your Efforts Count with Feedback

Group Of Industrial Or Engineer Corporate Workers Wear Protective Mask And Hard Hat Helmet Standing Line Up In Front Of Factory Lock Down Prevention For Coronavirus Or Covid 19 Epidemic Outbreak
Is your PPE inclusive? You need to ask your team to find out.

The most popular refrain we hear from workers about PPE is this: their bosses dole out protective gear and walk away. They don’t get feedback on the product to make sure it’s up to the task (e.g., does it fit, is it functional, etc.)

To run an effective PPE management program, you want to get feedback on PPE and PPE trials from the wearers — no matter what — to make sure they can do their jobs correctly. The same is true with inclusive PPE.

So ask your team:

  • Is each item easy to put on and take off?
  • Is it comfortable to wear over short periods? Long periods?
  • Do they get the full and appropriate range of motion?
  • Do they feel personally comfortable in the PPE (physically, culturally or otherwise)?
  • Does the PPE support them in doing their job according to the SOP?

These questions will help you better manage your PPE overall and help get you started on making sure your PPE stock is inclusive of your team’s requirements.

Diverse Teams Need Inclusive Safety Gear

As diversity efforts across construction, manufacturing, and general industry continue to head in a positive direction, we also need to think about the ways to update processes, even run-of-the-mill events like buying safety boots or gloves.

When you have a diverse team of people of different sexes, sizes, abilities, and backgrounds, buying a large run of one-size-fits-all safety gear won’t offer every employee the protection they need.

By committing to an inclusive safety program, you’ll ensure that your stock is not only effective in preventing harm to workers but that you’re also demonstrating a duty of care to the worker’s total health.

Nikki Olson

By Nikki Olson

Nikki Olson is a former commercial archaeologist and current Content Marketing Manager at Safesite, the only forever free safety solution. When Nikki’s not waist-deep in writing and editing, she’s in over her head surfing and kayaking around Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

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