The military has been asking for equipment sized to the female body since 1978. Last month, an advisory panel on women in the Armed Forces made that request again.
“Poorly fitting equipment is a leading cause of injury in servicemembers,” a March Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services annual report reads. Given that most traditional equipment was designed to fit men, “women are the most likely to suffer from injuries as a result of incorrectly fitting gear,” the report says.
And recently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was forced to reassign one female astronaut on the International Space Station, thereby canceling the first all-female space walk, due to the lack of spacesuits sized to females on board.
The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that women make up more than 47 percent of the U.S. workforce. Even though they’re still more likely to work in education, health care, and the service industry, a growing number are in construction and manufacturing, unions representing these workers report.
As more women enter male-dominated fields, the supply of appropriate, and necessary, safety gear—or personal protective equipment—in women’s sizes hasn’t always caught up with the changing workplace.
Not providing adequate protection to workers exposes employers to retention issues as well as sex discrimination claims, safety professionals tell Bloomberg Law.
One Step Toward Equality
Female workers in industries like oil and gas, construction, and machining have complained about a lack of access to safety items. Many are forced to wear ill-fitting harnesses, hard hats, fall protection, and gloves, said Abby Ferri, a workplace safety professional who heads the Women In Safety Excellence common interest group at the American Society of Safety Professionals.
Ill-fitting gear can pose a range of safety risks by snagging on ladders and exposing the body to hazards. Companies that don’t address the issue also risk losing workers they try hard to attract and retain.
“One thing we have seen is that if an employer didn’t respond to the requests” for properly fitting equipment, the worker would exit that workplace, Ferri said in a phone interview.
Providing protective gear that fits female bodies is just one part of achieving equality for women at work, said Emily Martin with the National Women’s Law Center.
“Making sure women can do the job safely is an important part of making sure women feel they are welcome on the job,” she said. Fixing this problem is “a symbol of normalizing women in this work.”
Are Unions Behind?
Bloomberg Law data show that more than 330 union contracts in the last five years included provisions on personal protective equipment, but of those contracts, none included language covering gender-specific gear.
Rhonda Rogers, director of the women’s and human rights wing of the International Association of Machinists, said management often is willing to provide the right-sized protective gear for their workers. The union never had to negotiate for that to be included in a contract, which is likely why it wouldn’t appear in collective bargaining agreements, she said.
However, United Steelworkers member Katrina Fitzgerald said she asked her union to bargain with their employer for the required, properly fitting uniforms for the women at the Ohio steel plant where they worked.
Finding such gear for women in the steel industry is an “absolute problem,” she said.
Fitzgerald’s employer required all workers uniforms resistant to electrical discharges. The cut of the uniform was one-size-fits-all and became a safety hazard for anyone with thighs and hips, she said.
“The uniforms were high-rise pants, so it was like a second bra for me. The waist of the pants reached to my chest,” and the crotch of the uniform hit the knees, she said.
In the end, after bargaining with the union, the company decided it was too costly to get gender-specific uniforms and scrapped the plan.
“In all fairness, employers that need these uniforms are lacking even in the options” for different sizes, Fitzgerald said. “This begs the question of why aren’t these manufacturing companies supplying these sizes.”
A representative from the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters said “this issue hasn’t been a concern to us.”
“That’s not to say that there have not been times when equipment or uniforms have been large for women,” said spokeswoman Kara Deniz. “It’s a matter of making sure that the sizing is available from manufacturers, but it hasn’t been a problem to obtain it.”
Risk for Employers
Getting properly fitting uniforms for female police officers was more of a problem in the 1990s than it is today, said Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents more than 300,000 U.S. law enforcement officers.
But the National Women’s Law Center said most lawsuits have involved female police officers claiming they weren’t provided with appropriately fitting bulletproof vests to wear during their pregnancy, said Martin, the general counsel and vice president for education and workplace justice at NWLC.
This is where employers could face liability for not providing proper safety gear to workers.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in September 2017 against the Frankfort Police Department in Frankfort, Ill., after the department refused to provide a pregnant worker with protective gear that would fit her changing body, including a properly sized bulletproof vest. The department denied her requests to carry some of her equipment in her pockets and vest to lessen the strain on her abdomen caused by her 25-pound duty belt. The case is ongoing.
In another case out of the Eastern District of Louisiana in 2015, a black female worker claimed that her employer, Bollinger Shipyards Inc., failed to to provide her adequately sized personal protective equipment, constituting gender discrimination in violation of Title VII and Section 1981. She lost her gender discrimination claim.
There’s even more exposure if, as a result of ill-fitting gear, women can’t do their jobs, Martin said.
“That should motivate employers to find a solution, whether that means an alternative supplier or saying to the supplier you have a problem and you’re creating a problem for me,” she said.