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PPE that fits: Construction can lead the change

by Sandi Rhys Jones OBE

Momentum has been building at the Chartered Institute of Building as we drive forward a progressive equality, diversity and inclusion programme to help the industry become fairer and more accessible to the full spectrum of society.

The business case for a commitment to EDI is well established. Diverse and inclusive organisations have been shown to be more creative, productive, profitable, and more responsive to diverse customer needs. Ambitious employers recognise the need to attract and retain a diverse and talented pool of built environment professionals for the best chance of success in global markets. This is particularly challenging today, when the construction industry in many countries faces an acute skills shortage.

This year the CIOB launched an initiative to address widespread inequalities in PPE provision across the industry, highlighting how this is having an impact on site safety and hampering the industry’s ability to attract and retain a more diverse workforce. The #PPEthatfits campaign puts a lens on the lack of inclusive PPE in the market.

The campaign calls for PPE that fits the wearer properly – regardless of their gender, culture, religion, size or shape – is safe and complies with health and safety regulations. Through it we are encouraging people working in construction who have experienced inadequate PPE to share their experiences and ideas for change.

The current shortcomings in PPE provision is nothing new for many women working in construction. There have been efforts over some years by individuals and groups to encourage manufacturers and employers to provide properly fitting safety boots for example, but procurement habits, and the ‘pink it and shrink it’ strategy adopted by many suppliers is not an adequate approach to keeping the female workforce safe – not to mention visitors to site. Research carried out by CIOB earlier this year revealed that 46 per cent of respondents (both male and female) said PPE they were given did not fit properly, while almost half of female respondents said they never wear PPE specially designed for women.

But this issue extends beyond the construction industry.  If you think about women’s football, a study found that 82% of women footballers at top European clubs say that uncomfortable boots affect their performance. That perhaps shouldn’t surprise us as the majority of football boots are designed to fit men.  We see the same issues in the health sector and in the sciences. Just a few weeks ago, the Chief Constable of Manchester publicly admitted his concern that body armour is not appropriately designed for policewomen.

Having properly fitting PPE is not a vanity project, it is much more serious. It is unacceptable to expect colleagues to perform properly when they are provided with poorly fitting equipment, and poorly fitting PPE presents a real danger to everyone else in the team. What’s more, these shortcomings reflect badly on the industry by implying that only certain types of people, those who comply with traditional stereotypes, are welcome and properly protected.

Addressing #PPEthatfits is a multi-faceted issue, which is why I am approaching it through my presidential theme of collaboration, bringing together the standard makers, the suppliers, the purchasers and the users. It is very encouraging that people and organisations we have talked to cover that entire spectrum and, crucially, want to do something about it. Our ambition is to get underneath what is blocking progress and hear from those who make, supply and buy PPE.

The exciting opportunity is to work with other sectors too, showing that construction can lead the way, and what can be achieved if we challenge the norm.  Systemic change is needed in traditional approaches to purchasing PPE, whether in the world of sport, transportation, medicine, or farming for example.  But you can only go so far with the establishment; change is driven by individuals who say that they won’t put up with this anymore. The campaign has already brought together some committed and innovative people, from clothes designers and entrepreneurial manufacturers to women engineers and heavy machinery operators, from institutions and federations to academics and insurers. No matter what sector you’re in you can take part in our campaign, and share your experience by reaching out to our team at CIOBPeople.com.

About the author

Sandi Rhys Jones OBE

Sandi Rhys Jones OBE

Sandi Rhys Jones began her career in construction, property and engineering as a journalist, working for a variety of technical organisations before forming her management and marketing business. She has worked for contractors, consultants, suppliers, representative organisations and government, both in the UK and overseas. An advocate for construction and its contribution to society – housing, workplaces, infrastructure – Sandi brings her experience both as employer and non-executive director to help organisations find innovative ways to improve performance and develop new business, including market and customer research, staff recruitment and retention, culture change, talent management and public and political engagement.

She developed and delivers a cross-disciplinary national mentoring programme at Women in Property and leads on Public Affairs, representing the organisation on two All Party Parliamentary Groups. She was appointed OBE in 1998 for her work in promoting women in construction. Sandi is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building, a Fellow of the Women’s Engineering Society and trained as a mediator after completing an MSc in Construction law.

Sandi became CIOB President in June 2023.

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