South Africa is seeing an increase in female workers in industrial environments as traditional gender-specific roles are being broken down.
From a personal protective equipment (PPE) perspective, women are still pigeon-holed with the expectation that they should wear either male or unisex PPE, says local manufacturer Sisi Safety Wear senior brand manager Vanessa Ronald.
“There is a fundamental difference in size and shape between a woman and a man’s body, and ill-fitting PPE often creates discomfort and potential risk for women. Further, what many businesses don’t realise is that ill-fitting PPE impacts on the productivity of the female workforce in the workplace,” she says.
Ronald notes that the basic concept of PPE is to protect the worker from the potential hazards in their working environment.
When it comes to safety footwear, the hazards may include slipping, falling objects, corrosive chemicals and solvents, sharp protruding metals and shavings and anti-static charges. PPE is supposed to protect a person from these dangers in the workplace.
“If we look at a typical woman’s foot, the contours differ from that of a man’s in that the female foot is generally narrower,” says Ronald.
She mentions that a women’s size five shoe would need to be shaped differently to that of a man’s size five shoe, ensuring a comfortable and secure fit.
Ronald points out that a man’s shoe may fit a woman’s foot from the toe to the heel, however, it would typically be too wide in breadth. As a result, her foot may oscillate within the shoe. Over time, the oscillation puts strain on her ankle, which leads to strain on the knee and subsequently strain on her hip.
In the case of women who have narrow heels, the potential of slipping out of the boot becomes a daily risk thereby counteracting the sole purpose for wearing safety footwear.
Instead of focusing on the daily task at hand, a woman will be mindful of her ill-fitting footwear, thereby decreasing her productive output.
In addition, in the case of workwear such as conti-suits, boiler suits, the difference between the shape of a man’s and a woman’s body is more evident. Despite this, there is still a trend of procuring men’s workwear or unisex workwear for women.
“I believe that this is because the consequences of and daily struggles with ill-fitting workwear for women are not understood,” Ronald says.
She adds that, in terms of the trousers, women naturally have wider hips and a more pronounced posterior. As a result, the pattern of the trousers needs to be cut differently to accommodate the difference in shape.
Failure to do so can result in the trousers sitting below the belly button section. For women who have given birth through a caesarean section, there are often complaints that the button places unwanted pressure on the scarring area causing discomfort.
Further, when a woman bends over – a task that is common for those wearing conti-trousers – the trouser waist band typically falls below her hip region exposing the top half of her posterior.
This not only compromises her dignity in front of her colleagues, but often results in her wearing nylon tights under her trousers.
Ronald highlights that, when it comes to jackets, unlike men, women generally have a smaller back area, but a more pronounced chest area. There are typically two issues that arise when issuing women with men’s conti-jackets.
Moreover, jackets are sourced to fit the waist area, hip length and arm length causing tightness in the chest area, thereby restricting flexibility and movement and exposing a woman’s midriff when raising her arms. Alternatively, the jackets are sourced to fit the pronounced chest area, resulting in a baggy, uncomfortable fit, where the arms and hip length are compromised.
In addition, the female shape varies from one woman to another. Some have a larger chest area, but a smaller hip area, while others have an extended hip area but a smaller chest area. In other cases, some women have proportional hip to chest areas. As a result, assuming that conti-suits for women can be bought as a set is another misconception.
Industrial psychologist Uma Naidoo says, if one is not comfortable in their attire, which they use for about eight hours a day, this could lead to frustration, poor concentration, increased breaks and many other debilitating effects on productivity. She confirms that, if an individual is uncomfortable in their clothing, they are not functioning at their best.
Owing to more and more women entering into areas once deemed the preserve of men, there needs to be a shift in the way that PPE is procured for the workforce, if productivity is to be maximised.
Much research has been spent looking into the ergonomics of a corporate space with proven results. If the same concept is applied to those wearing workwear, we can conclude that the more comfortable a worker is, the better they will perform, Ronald concludes.