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Safety over style: getting personal about my protective equipment

27 May 2021

In our latest Women Like Us blog, ICE Fellow Paula McMahon confesses how and why her protective clothes have not fit, and why this matters.

Safety over style: getting personal about my protective equipment
Paula McMahon

Many of you reading this will know your clothes size. The lucky readers will still fit in that outfit you bought while at school. I do not. Holidays, celebrations, and now lockdowns all contribute to the need to have a selection of sizes in my wardrobe, many with elasticated waists!

But what has this got to do with engineering?

Well, until I started to think about writing this, I would have said absolutely nothing. However, I have been dwelling on the contrasts between my home clothing and that in my locker at work. Why do I have multiple sizes of female clothes at home vs my single-sized male PPE at work?

My [Im]Personal Protective Equipment

Let's go back a few decades for some context.

Paula the young apprentice engineer nervously walks into the massive storeroom with a pre-prepared chitty.

After some ‘friendly banter’, I walk out with ill-fitting men’s clothes which were tight in places and far too big in others. No boots today, the smallest men’s boots in stock didn’t fit despite the ‘helpful' comments about wearing more socks. My new, smaller boots in the smallest men’s size available were on order, after more than a little grumbling. These would prove to only fit with the help of multiple layers of thick socks.

But I was super chuffed with my haul. After all, my hat fit, or rather it would when I figured out the slidey thing!

I'd like to say that this changed the next time I needed PPE, but it didn’t. At some point, when ladies’ protective boots became available, they were ‘too expensive’ and ‘not in the catalogue’. Not a problem, I bought them myself.

My last set of PPE was obtained probably seven years ago. My female size 5 boots and adjustable hat now both fit. But the rest is ill-fitting and uncomfortable, despite my adjustments to take up the trouser legs and move buttons.

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More recently during MEWP [Mobile Elevating Work Platforms] training, the trainer questioned the suitability of my well-used harness.

He asked: "Was it uncomfortable?"

I answered: "Absolutely, but aren’t they all?"

He responded: "No, they should fit!"

With his help, we quickly found the ‘lady harness’ supplier and ordered one. My remaining harness-wearing shifts were a delight. My ‘bits’ welcomed the lack of squishing.

Confessions of an engineer

So why do I have a work locker full of clothes that don't fit? I have to confess I simply picked my last lot of PPE off the shelf from the items in our store. I did not look for, and never considered, an alternative.

I will never know if I had asked for a brochure, that one filled to the brim with appropriate clothing would have been presented to me. I do, however, know that today my company offers a wide range of ladies’ PPE in its standard company catalogue. No comments, no grumbling, no special orders, no wait, no fuss.

So why don’t my clothes fit? Is it years of unconscious conditioning into acceptance? Has it been lack of knowledge that sometime over the last 30 years, a women’s PPE market has been created? Is it those extra lockdown chocolates? I confess, it's probably a little from all those things.

Safety over style

But why does it matter? Well, it certainly isn’t style related.

Quite simply, ill-fitting PPE is unsafe and hinders free movement. Long sleeves get in the way, turned up and long trousers are a potential trip hazard, and pockets can’t be used when the zips are straining at the seams at my ‘pinch points’!

But of course, let’s not forget having appropriate, fit-for-purpose safety equipment, including PPE, is a legal requirement.

So, let's ensure we can all consider safety over style by ensuring our PPE is in fact personal, regardless of size, shape or sex.

Women like us need to ensure our PPE fits, and companies need to ensure we have easy access to it.

  • Paula McMahon, #TheLine founder and regional supervising officer at Sir Robert McAlpine