Data gaps need filling in fight for better PPE for women

Safety leaders urge women to speak up and participate

Data gaps need filling in fight for better PPE for women

The push to create and supply personal protective equipment to women in the workplace needs voices to fill critical data gaps and make it clear to government and industry stakeholders there is a problem that needs to be addressed through standards and legislation.

“It's using our voice, it's finding ways to get involved,” says Christina Roll, casualty risk consultant with AXA XL. She says advocacy on this issue needs to come from all levels of the workforce, the frontline to the executive suites.

Roll was speaking during a panel at the Women in Safety Summit called ‘Failure to protect: The need to do better at keeping women safe in the workplace’. The other panellists echoed her comments, including Candace Sellar, program manager for worker and public safety standards with CSA Group.

CSA Group conducted a study on women and PPE and issued a report towards the end of 2022. The findings reveal startling statistics, including 41 percent of respondents feared termination for refusing work related to unsafe or poorly fitting PPE. That’s just one of several eye-opening figures found in the report.

“We wouldn't have found out this information if those 2700 women hadn't spent 12 minutes of their lives completing those surveys,” says Sellar. 

She suggests women working in fields where PPE is required must advocate for their safety needs, “join standards development committees, where you have technical knowledge, a passion for the topic, maybe lived experience.”

Sellar says there is a lack of Canadian anthropometric data, “this is a critical gap.” To close the gap, Sellar says Canadian professionals need to help fill in the blanks.

“I also believe in advocacy through action. If you are a researcher or an academic reach out to us, let's talk research, let's talk about funding research and participating in the research.”

Jodi Huettner is one woman who has done a fair amount of research. Frustrated with her own PPE in a well-paid engineering job, Huettner created her own business called Helga Wear. As part of her fight for standards that include women’s body data and gender specific language, she helped CSA Group with the report, and participated in the Women in Safety Summit panel.

She says data collection is only possible when women speak up.

“We need to create safe places where people can start to report, we need to create spaces where our health and safety team will take that paper trail, give it to the (Joint Health & Safety Committee), it makes its way to the employer, that makes its way to the unions, we start having a real compelling case.”

Huettner encourages women to speak with their union reps as well as their healthy and safety leaders. Roll suggests creating a dialogue with employers and the engineers who are designing the tools, workstations, and even the PPE.

“I've gone in and I'm like, look, from an ergonomics perspective, you can do these types of analyses. And by the way, there's hard anthropometric data that shows men and women are different. Are you using both? Are you thinking through this? And you just see the light bulbs start going on.”

Sellar says larger organizations often have a procurement officer. This would be the person purchasing tools and equipment, like PPE.

“Procurement officers aren't aware of who is out there and what products are available. And sometimes it takes the female staff coming forward and saying this isn't working for us and getting the support and building that awareness internally.”

This is one way to create change at the micro level, within a specific company or organization. But it can help fuel the bigger fight for institutional changes within entire industries and with assistance from governments.

Sellar points to figures from Statistics Canada which estimates 9.3 million women over the age of 15 are working. “So when you say there isn't a market to make this PPE or provide this PPE, I think 9.3 million women is a pretty compelling number.”

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