What Women Want: Why Skanska is designing its own women’s workwear

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Concerned about the safety implications for female site workers of being required to work in PPE designed for men, Jarrett Milligan, senior safety director at Skanska USA, challenged manufacturers to produce a hi-vis vest designed for the real women in his company. In the second of a two-part series on PPE that doesn’t fit, Lucy Barnard finds out how he did it and what more employers need to do to ensure every worker can wear PPE that fits. 

For Mindy Uber, a senior safety director at Skanska USA, being jerked back by her oversized hi-vis vest when it caught on door handles was a frequent irritation.

Like all visitors and workers on US construction sites, Uber was required to wear a fluorescent yellow vest over her clothing in order to ensure she was visible to construction teams and to keep her safe.

However, as Uber, and a number of other female workers at Skanska pointed out, although the vests ordered by the company and issued to all Skanska USA staff with the ability to go into the field, were described as “unisex,” they were in fact designed for men.

Skanska workers wearing the new vests. Photo: Skanska

Eventually in 2018, Jarrett Milligan, another senior safety director at Skanska, and a former damage controlman in the United States Navy, who works to oversee the company’s environmental, health and safety programme for the northeast region’s building operations, took up the cause.

“During my career, I have had to order and hand female employees PPE that is designed and manufactured for men. Gloves fit long fingers and large palms; vests are made for taller and wider frames,” Milligan says. “Long and baggy vests are more likely to catch or snag on handrails, doors and equipment. If gloves are too large, an individual’s dexterity is reduced and they cannot properly grasp onto things.”

But, when Milligan started looking into buying a better fitting vest for the company’s female employees, he found few products available.

“At that time female PPE was available on the market but it was not widely ordered or used,” Milligan says. Moreover, he points out that the hi-vis vests specifically marketed at women lacked a lot of the features available in the unisex vests the company was already ordering such as extra pockets or a microphone clip.

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“We brought in a whole group of our female leaders, from our executive level all the way down through the field engineers and we said, what works for you and what doesn’t?” Milligan says. “Then we went to one of our vendors, Colony Hardware in New York and we spent some time listing all the things that we felt were a problem. We kind of gave them a challenge and said let’s bring all your major manufacturers together in a room and see what they can do for us.”

Colony agreed and sent samples of vests and gloves which Milligan asked 25 women from Skanska’s New York office and jobsites to trial and which he also took to Skanska’s Seattle and Boston offices for staff to comment on as well as the company’s national EHS team.

The Skanska teams then listed what they considered to be their best features of a variety of different vests and challenged the manufacturers to produce a new specially designed vest which included all of them.

Skanska’s challenge to manufacturers

“We gave every manufacturer a shot to say, hey, this is what I can do and a few of them came back with prototypes which we tested,” Milligan adds. “Eventually we landed on Radians.”

US manufacturer Radians then agreed to mass produce the two vests which resulted from the process and, crucially, to sell them to Skanska at the same price as the equivalent unisex vest it was already producing on the understanding that Skanska would purchase the vests for the majority of its 1,200 female US staff.

“I don’t know the exact number of vests we’ve ordered, but it has to be in the thousands by now,” says Milligan. “We tend to supply PPE vests for our own workers [free of charge] and then we’ve had Colony make it available in our online store so we could share it with subcontractors and self-employed craft.”

Radians too now stocks the Skanska-designed ladies’ vests and says that it is making them available at the same price as the equivalent men’s vests.

“To me it just feels like better fitting clothing which always makes me feel better,” says Uber. “I feel more confident when I walk out on the jobsite and that I belong here. I don’t have to worry about my vest flapping around or look like I’m wearing something that was not meant for me.”

“I think what’s most important is that industrywide, more and more vendors other than Radians are starting to manufacture female PPE,” adds Uber. “Other vendors are starting to listen to that feedback so there are others around the country where we can purchase vests and other women’s PPE.”

Certainly, Skanska is not alone. UK-based contractor BAM Nuttall has been rolling out a range of workwear specifically designed for women since 2015 after undertaking trials with PPE manufacturers Arco and Onsite Support at its worksites in London, Leeds, Newcastle and Scotland.

Women’s PPE available through the BAM Site Direct portal include hi-vis vests, polo shirts, rain jackets, hi-vis trousers, safety boots and gloves as well as hi-vis maternity wear and modesty tunics.

Bouygues PPE partnership with OnSite Support includes a maternity range. Photo: Bouygues

And in 2023, French contractor Bouygues launched its new inclusive PPE range in partnership with OnSite Support, which includes female alternatives as well as a maternity-specific safety clothing.

Lawmakers too are tightening the rules to require employers to provide correctly fitting safety gear and protective clothing for all workers.

In July 2023, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also announced that it was proposing to amend its PPE requirements for construction to explicitly state that all safety gear used on site must properly fit.

In the UK, the most recent Health & Safety Executive (HSE) regulations state that equipment must be provided to workers free of charge. Rules require that selected PPE suits the worker, considering the size, fit, compatibility and weight of the PPE and the physical characteristics of the wearer “modifying PPE to fit is not a suitable solution,” it adds. Some MPs are calling for these rules to be changed further to specifically mention women.

Is women’s PPE a legal requirement?

And the European Parliament is also considering a review of its PPE requirements after a study found that most European harmonised standards failed to adequately consider all people’s body dimensions.

Yet, despite these advances, many women say there is still a long way to go.

“I think thought that we need to have more options available for women,” says Uber. “Right now there may be one or two female vests available for women but there’s probably fifty for men.”

“From a manufacturer’s point of view it’s a risk,” Uber adds. “It’s an expense for them to run a whole different product line for women. They’re investing a lot, hoping there’s a market on the other side to purchase it. At Skanska USA, around 20% of our employees are female but for other employers that might be just buying for one woman out of a hundred, it’s harder to demonstrate the demand.”

BAM Nuttall’s PPE designed for women by OnSite Support. Photo: OnSite Support

Milligan admits that Skanska USA still has a long way to go to provide a broader range of women’s PPE. The company has been working with glove manufacturers to get a smaller pair of gloves made and is looking into different sizes of safety glasses. The company is also looking at adding a newer style women’s safety boot to its store, although he points out that in the USA workers are usually required to pay for their own footwear. Maternity wear or specialist clothing for menopausal women or to protect ethnic minorities would have to be ordered on a case by case basis, he says.

“We are relying on people to speak up if they have any concerns,” says Uber. “We have our safety people on projects interacting with folks and the superintendents are here to listen so I think we’ve got some pretty good advocates in the field.”

A 2024 survey of 1,444 engineers from the Women’s Engineering Society found that just 4% of women and 16% of men reported that their PPE fitted them perfectly. Another 44% of men and 23% of women said that their PPE fitted quite well. On the other hand 35% of women and 12% of men said their PPE didn’t fit at all or fitted badly.

It found that 32% of respondents did not raise concerns about ill fitting PPE at all and of the 68% who did raise concerns with others, less than a tenth said their concerns had been fully addressed.

Moreover, the WES found that although the amount and variety of PPE on the market is increasing, many workers are not able to access it.

One reason for this is that most large employers acquire company PPE through arrangements with specific wholesalers which means that, in practice staff can only select PPE via a catalogue or specific company-branded online store. These catalogues are often limited or provide no choice for women’s PPE and provide no size guide making it hard to understand what ‘small’ or ‘medium’ really mean.

WES chief executive Elizabeth Donnelly says a lack of standard, international and reliable female clothes sizing makes it harder for manufacturers to explain female sizes simply.

Measuring Up

To combat this WES proposes to collect thousands of real-life measurements from its members and other PPE wearing women which it plans to make available to PPE manufacturers on which they can base meaningful and universal women’s PPE sizing. At the same time the organisation plans to bring together a steering group of women who wear PPE to help inform designs, requesting items such as larger pockets and more breathable fabrics.

“At the moment women’s PPE is almost an untapped market,” says Donnelly. “If we can get enough big employers on board - large contractors or the armed forces - and you can show that there is sufficient demand, for a manufacturer there has got to be a big advantage to being one of the first into that market. Then companies will say go to this manufacturer because we know the PPE fits.”

Amy Roosa, chief executive of The Safety Rack, a US-based website which tries out and compares women’s PPE agrees. “I believe there is a disconnect in communication between manufacturers, distributors and employers,” she says. “Distributors need to be presenting these brands to employers, but if employers never bring up needing women’s PPE, it’s not going to be mentioned.”

“Awareness is key right now,” she adds. “We need employers to be more aware and prepared to support workers with proper PPE.”

This is the second article in this series. To read part one, click here.

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