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Sudbury industrial apparel-maker has the answer for ill-fitting PPE

Alicia Woods contributes to a national report calling for better, safer clothing for women in the workplace
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Alicia Woods (left), founder of Coveralls designs and distributes PPE apparel for women. (Lindsay Kelly photo)

A recent report said Canadian women are not getting the best experience with PPE (personal protective equipment) in the Canadian workplace.

The report, published by the Canadian Standards Association, concluded that poorly designed and poorly fitting PPE can have serious negative impacts for women.

The 119-page study was released in November and the Sudbury-based Covergalls Workwear company is the only private designer/manufacturer of women's industrial clothing mentioned in the document. 

Covergalls provides custom-fitted coveralls and clothing for women in the mining industry.

Alicia Woods, the CEO and founder of Covergalls, said she was pleased to see the report and said it was about time the issue was more clearly defined.

"I launched Covergalls in 2012, right? So that was like a decade ago. It has really been a struggle and a challenge to educate individuals, companies, organizations that there was really a need for this," said Woods.

The CSA study found that 59 per cent of women in the workplace in Canada use the wrong-sized PPE at least some of the time; that 28 per cent of women do not wear all their required PPE because of issues with the fit; and that 38 per cent of women use a "workaround" to make their PPE fit better.

Workarounds included such things as rubber bands, safety pins, or duct tape to shorten fall-arrest gear, secure work gloves, shorten sleeves, and prevent their baggy pant legs from tripping them, said the report. 

The study also revealed that "nearly 40 per cent reported experiencing an injury or incident that they perceived to be related to their PPE."

Woods said it was important for the study to be done so it could validate the concerns that have existed for years.

"You know females needed proper fitting PPE for a number of reasons. Number one is safety and health. And then not to mention the inclusion piece where proper workwear is made for women and it actually made them feel like they belonged in those jobs and industries. 

"But it was nice to actually see a governing body like CSA, finally come forth and say, ‘Hey, we're going to do a report on this, and let's put something together to shine a light on this issue’."

The study's first recommendation said that garment designers need to incorporate more anthropometric data (weight, height, body mass, limb lengths) on female dimensions into their products and to follow up by producing more products that incorporate female sizes.

One of the concerns, said the report, is that women are not merely smaller versions of men.

Once that is accepted, it means that women should not be provided with smaller versions of men's work clothing. The report said this is one of  the "gaps" that exist for ensuring that women get the correct sizes of garments. 

"However, like most countries around the world, Canada has not undertaken a national anthropometric survey of the general population; nor has  it undertaken a national sizing survey of the Canadian workforce. This lack of Canada-specific anthropometric data (for both the general and working populations) is a critical information gap for Canadian designers and manufacturers of PPE for women." said the document.

The report spelled out in clear terms how wrong-sized garments can be a hazard.

"Poorly designed and poorly fitting PPE can contribute to workers being injured in the workplace. For example, ill-fitting respirators can expose workers to  airborne contaminants, oversized protective clothing  can interfere with workers’ mobility and present a  tripping hazard, and oversized gloves can be caught in machinery or expose skin to chemicals."

Woods, who worked in the mining sales and supply industry for several years, still remembers the frustration of poor fitting mining clothes. She said it was one of the things she shared with the authors of the CSA report who called on her for input. She explained that it was the reason Covergalls went into business.

"I mean it was based on my own personal frustration, and wearing men's workwear that didn't fit me properly; it was big and baggy. But I think what we could also bring to them was a kind of a collection of stories and feedback and testimonials that we had been receiving from, you know, individual females and companies over the decade, that we launched the business. So it was almost like we were able to share with them all the stuff that we had gathered over those years," Woods said.

She added she would like to see some action on the CSA document.

"I hope two things are going to come out of it. Number one, the mandate that proper fitting PPE is to be supplied. And it's actually not just a female issue. It's really an all-gender issue, because we get a lot of men who reach out to us too who can't find proper fitting work wear or for themselves. So I think it's just the mandate that proper fitting PPE should be supplied to all individuals who are working," said Woods.

She added that if CSA creates a new clothing standard for the workplace, she would like to see enforcement of that new standard. 

"Let's hold those organizations accountable to making sure it happens. Because if you actually read some of the standards that major corporations have, it does talk about proper fitting work wear in there. It's not specific to a gender, but it does talk about how they're responsible for providing proper fitting work wear." Woods said it is one thing to set a new standard, but it is also important to have some sort of framework for enforcement.

"We get a lot of women who reach out to us and their companies still don't recognize and understand the need," said Woods. "And we're actually now even seeing women go to their unions. So now it's the union actually going back to the organization saying, ‘hey, you need to be doing this’.

So it's like the unions are starting to hold companies accountable. But you know, we shouldn't have to get to that level where unions are getting involved in putting in grievances."

Woods said if change is mandated for better clothing standards, she is confident that Covergalls can easily adapt.

She said for the most part her products are already in line with safety and fitting requirements. She added that plans are already underway to produce a more sustainable collection of work wear made out of recycled material.

Len Gillis covers mining and health care for Sudbury.com.