Properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) is a safety issue, and it’s important for attracting new people into the trades, and retaining them, says Jodi Huettner, president and CEO of Helga Wear.
Huettner’s company designs and supplies gender-inclusive workwear and is fighting for inclusive safety standards for PPE.
The issue of fit is so important that it can mean the difference between a person’s PPE preventing or causing hazards. “If your PPE isn’t fitting correctly, you’re at a greater risk for slips, trips and falls,” said Huettner.
Huettner said that industrial workwear is designed for a 220 lb male body standard and does not account for known differences in female and male body proportions. A garment can’t simply be sized up or down.
A pair of coveralls, for example, that has not been designed for the proper body proportions will restrict arm and leg mobility, especially for those doing overhead work, or who transition from crawling to standing positions, or climb, as part of their work, said Huettner.
Chelsea French, truck and transportation mechanic, and co-chair of Build TogetHER, the women’s committee of the BC Building Trades, said it’s an issue for anyone in the industry who does not fit into standard sizes. French, with IUOE Local 115, has struggled to find small-enough gear that fits in the correct proportions. There have been cuts or bruises on exposed arms, slips on the shop floor, and sometimes, falls.
“Climbing on and off a dump truck where you are required to have three points of contact never happened for me because I would have to use one hand to pull the coverall crotch up in order to lift my legs to get up the steps. This actually became a real safety concern when my leg got caught in the coveralls and I fell off the steps of a dump truck onto my back,” said French.
It's not just about coveralls, said French, but a whole range of PPE: gloves, boots, safety glasses and respirators. Huettner adds tools and machinery to this list.
A related issue is that standard coveralls are designed to facilitate toileting for male bodies, something that’s created a problem for females who have no option but to remove their entire outerwear. It’s time-consuming, as well as a privacy issue for those working on jobsites without washrooms, and it can significantly impact health and hydration.
Huettner ran into the problem while working as an engineer on large industrial sites. It became a springboard for her to start designing coveralls that would help, instead of getting in the way.
“I have a sewing background,” she said, “so I started just ‘frankensteining’ my way into PPE that fit and most importantly into something that let me go to the bathroom without all the rigamarole.” The result was a coverall with an inseam zipper allowing access without having to remove the outerwear, now a signature of her designs.
“The fact nothing like this existed bothered me to no end so I took the risk, left an engineering paycheque and entered the land of entrepreneurship,” Huettner said. She’s now designed and supplied gender-inclusive workwear to industrial operations like Seaspan Shipyards in Victoria and Vancouver.
When PPE is scaled properly, garments will fit without having to make adjustments, she said.
“When we do a fitting on the job site, I walk them through a mobility test—and the fact that they can do full lunges without having to jimmy around with their coveralls—that’s the reason I do this. Just seeing looks on their faces and hearing them say ‘wow.’ They finally look like they fit in."
Both Huettner and French have advocated that fit be recognized in the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standards for safety attire, and that this include the known grading schemes for women, as well as for men.
In 2021, the CSA invited Huettner to sit on a committee to revise the High Visibility Safety Attire (HVSA) standard CSA Z96-15. The CSA has now set up a research advisory panel to conduct a full literature review and to conduct a survey of tradeswomen and PPE, said Huettner, who is on the panel.
“I’m not going to stop until there is meaningful language written into the CSA,” she said. “It’s such a tangible step. We will never have equity until we do that.”
Both Build TogetHER and the BC Building Trades have endorsed Huettner’s campaign. For more information, visit helgawear.com/blog.