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According to recent reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up roughly 10% of jobs in the construction industry, 30% in manufacturing, and as of 2021, and 75% of healthcare and social assistance jobs. Although those numbers may have dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, women are beginning to return to the workforce in what continues to be a very tight labor market. In addition to being great tools for recruitment and retention, PPE fit issues in these three vital segments of a precarious US economy are also emerging as areas for potential legal pitfalls and additional cost that employers should examine carefully.
According to a 2019 report from the American Society of Safety Professionals, getting properly fitting PPE is still a challenge for female workers, and can lead to several adverse workplace events, the most obvious of which are safety-related. Ill-fitting PPE can pose a range of safety risks to workers in any industry, some which by example may include: loose clothing snagging on ladders or pulling workers into production equipment, too-large gloves exposing the skin to chemical and cut hazards; sprains from trips, falls and prolonged use of too-wide steel-toed boots; and repetitive strains, motion disorders, and nerve conditions in wrists and forearms from use of hand tools with “standard” grip sizes – all of which may increase an employer’s OSHA recordable and reportables, including DART rates, and discourage employees from using PPE at all.
And as experienced EHS professionals know, where OSHA injuries and illness go, so too do workers’ compensation claims, creating additional cost and disruption to the business.
Lastly, and in addition to the risk of losing valuable, experienced talent employers are working hard to retain, PPE can also be the basis for various gender discrimination claims alleging disparate treatment and loss of job opportunities (think NASA cancelling its first attempt at a history-making all-female spacewalk in early 2019 because there weren’t enough medium-sized spacesuits). Making sure women can perform work safely not only reduces these risks, but also serves as an important tool for inclusion and making women feel welcome on the job.
By considering the legal and non-legal implications of gender-specific PPE, employers can avoid the lose-lose situation likely to affect employees and employers alike.
 See https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-databook/2020/home.htm#:~:text=However%2C%20women%20were%20substantially%20underrepresented,and%20construction%20(10.3%20percent); https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2022/the-construction-industry-labor-force-2003-to-2020/home.htm; https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2022/over-16-million-women-worked-in-health-care-and-social-assistance-in-2021.htm#:~:text=Source%3A%20U.S.%20Bureau%20of%20Labor,End%20of%20interactive%20chart.&text=In%202021%2C%2016.4%20million%20women,million%20workers%20in%20the%20industry.