Taking her out of his shoes

Although more women are entering non-traditional sectors, there remains very little personal protective equipment (PPE) specially designed for women. MARISKA MORRIS reports.

Although women have been in the mining, construction and manufacturing industries for decades, recent years have seen the numbers of women employed in these sectors increase.

There were an estimated 53 179 women working in the South African mining sector in 2017, compared to only 11 400 in 2002. In 2018, there were 40 065 women-owned contracting companies working in the construction sector.

These women will undoubtedly face some challenges, but PPE should not be one of them. Often, women in these sectors have to rely on PPE designed with their male peers in mind. The ill-fitting PPE can result in an accident instead of keeping the employee safe.

Vanessa Ronald, senior brand manager at Sisi Safety Wear – a division of BBF Safety Group that addresses the need for PPE designed for women, notes the harm men’s PPE can cause women in her opinion piece titled: The practical problems of working women in working men’s clothing.

“When it comes to safety footwear, the hazards may include slipping, falling objects, corrosive chemicals and solvents, sharp protruding metals and shavings and anti-static charges, just to name a few. If we look at a typical woman’s foot, the contours differ to that of a man’s in that the female foot is generally narrower,” Ronald explains.

“A man’s shoe may fit a woman’s foot from toe to heel, however, it would typically be too wide. As a result, her foot may oscillate within the shoe. Over time, the oscillation puts strain on her ankle, which leads to strain on the knee and subsequent strain on her hip.”

While at first the female employee might experience only minor discomfort, the injury can quickly escalate to something more serious. On a day-to-day basis, the employee will be distracted by the ill-fitting footwear, which can affect her productivity. It can also distract her from paying attention to her surroundings.

“In the case of workwear (such as overalls), the difference between the shape of a man’s and a woman’s body is more evident. Despite this, there is still a trend of procuring men’s or unisex workwear for women. I believe that this is due to the fact that the consequences and daily struggles of ill-fitting workwear for women are not understood,” Ronald says.

She adds that women tend to have wider hips and a more pronounced posterior. Trousers designed for men, or both sexes, will not easily fit the shape of a female employee. The pants will be either too small and sit uncomfortably, or too big and expose the woman’s body while working.

Some women try to counteract the latter by wearing nylon tights underneath the pants, but this can lead to bacterial infections, as the nylon is not a breathable material, as well as cause the woman to overheat in the double layer of clothing – especially in the summer months or warm working conditions. Other less obvious challenges for women might be the position of buttons.

“For women who have given birth through a caesarean section, there are often complaints that a button places unwanted pressure on the scarring area causing major discomfit,” Ronald comments. Jackets pose a similar challenge, as a woman’s upper body is very different to that of her male peers.

Ronald notes: “With more and more women entering into areas once deemed the preserve of men, there needs to be a shift in the way that PPE is procured for the workforce, if productivity is to be maximised.” 

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