Fit for work: why gender-biased workwear is unsafe


Friday, 21 January, 2022

Fit for work: why gender-biased workwear is unsafe

When it comes to safety on a job site — even in industries where men traditionally dominate the workplace — risks and hazards are equal opportunists. This is why personal protective equipment, in the form of clothing or footwear, should be made to fit both women and men in equal fashion, said an expert from safety workwear supplier Blackwoods.

“In previous years, women have been forced to wear the smaller sizes of male clothing in sectors such as construction or mining — and the common feedback was that they felt as if they were borrowing someone else’s clothes,” explained Leigh Eam, the National Category Manager and Sourcing Manager for Workwear and Footwear at Blackwoods. “In these instances, women are not empowered to do their job properly. If the clothing doesn’t fit well, they are uncomfortable and that in itself can pose a safety risk.”

Ms Eam has been immersed in the workwear market for over 20 years, in roles that have spanned the entire sector from head to toe — including design development, brand management, manufacturing and sourcing. As such, she has seen the growth of women working in industrial sectors and has been part of a commercial movement to support and cater to women with personal protective equipment (PPE) and workwear that is made specifically for them.

“We are definitely seeing more diversity in industry, whether that be in trades traditionally dominated by men or on construction sites. I believe women hold approximately 30% of the jobs in industrial safety market now,” Ms Eam said. “I feel that I can support these women in my role by providing them with the right protective workwear to do their job. Their job requirements are the same as their male counterparts, so as a basic requirement to perform their job, their clothing should fit correctly.”

Ms Eam’s estimates are in line with recent reports. Women now comprise 39.9% of managerial roles across industry. And while there is still a significant pay gap in the construction industry, there have been positive developments, including an increase in paid parental leave and flexibility in construction workplaces.

Ms Eam said as Australia’s largest supplier of industrial and safety products, Blackwoods was in a position to support women in the workforce by providing broader apparel and footwear ranges. She noted their partnership with industry-recognised brands such as Hard Yakka, King Gee, Oliver Footwear and Workhorse has influenced the production and availability of safety apparel suited to women’s preferences and shapes.

This influence has manifested in practical design changes.

“For example, women’s safety work shirts will have bust darts to fit across their upper body properly. They also have modesty buttons added to ensure women feel confident that they won’t be exposed in that area,” she explained. “In the past, when women would pick a small man’s size shirt, it usually would not fit properly across the bust, making them feel self-conscious — to the point where they might have eschewed wearing proper protective worktops altogether.”

Importantly, Ms Eam pointed out that ill-fitting clothing or footwear can become a safety hazard in itself.

“For example, if shirt sleeves are too long or too baggy this could become a catch hazard,” she explained. “Likewise, poor-fitting pants or shoes can be a trip risk.”

A uniform should also inspire confidence, not hinder it, Ms Eam said.

“A key benefit of a uniform concept is that there should be parity among all employees, especially where safety is a priority. If the clothing doesn’t fit well, or the shoes are too big for your feet, then you’re not going to do your job to the best of your ability because part of your focus will be on that problem,” she stressed. “All PPE should be fitted and worn as intended. At the end of the day, comfort equals confidence.”

This is why Ms Eam is passionate about her role, and the service that Blackwoods provides.

“Part of our commitment to support women in industry is providing feedback to the brands we work with to ensure steps are being taken to make clothing better suited to women. Another part of that commitment is in giving our customers choice,” she concluded. “Not only do women have very different body structures to men, but it’s also important to remember that each individual’s shape and size is unique. Therefore, having options between brands and styles is vitally important.”

The Blackwoods range of women’s work apparel offers the latest in design and innovation from their partnering brands, and a dedicated apparel team is also on hand to work with customers to provide fit-for-purpose solutions.

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