With the government’s aims to increase the number of women in wind to 33% by 2030, it’s more important than ever to remove any barriers – such as the current lack of female-fit PPE.

Well-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) is not only a safety requirement, it’s an issue of inclusivity, with a lack of female-specific workwear deterring women from entering or remaining in technical roles in the energy industry.

Women working onsite and offshore in the wind industry have told a research project they are unable to access the correct PPE, according to a study by the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich.
Early data from Clearing the Pathway for Women in Offshore Wind, a joint study with the Offshore Wind Industry Council (OWIC), has raised “serious PPE safety concerns,” Dr Jade Stalker, lecturer in organisational behaviour at UEA, Norwich Business School, told Insight Energy.

“There is some evidence from the interview data collected so far of women unable to access correct PPE working on site and offshore. This raises concerns of safety and requires further investigation
as a matter of urgency.  

“Whilst there is evidence of organisations ordering correct PPE when notified, the problem is that several female workers stated correct PPE is not readily available.”

PPE specialists that have supplied female-fit and size overalls and boots across the energy industry for many years said although demand had stepped up in the last three to five years, there remained a bulk manufacturing issue that led to fewer choices and more expensive women’s PPE because of the far smaller share of the market compared to men’s PPE.

And some women had told them they preferred to wear more roomy men’s overalls than fitted female-form styles.

Eastern Daily Press: Issues surrounding bulk buying and the choice of women's-fit ranges will improve as more women join the industry, say manufacturer Fristads.Issues surrounding bulk buying and the choice of women's-fit ranges will improve as more women join the industry, say manufacturer Fristads. (Image: Fristads)

Rob Freeman, UK sales manager at workwear manufacturers Fristads, which has an office/showroom in Great Yarmouth, has produced a huge range of workwear and PPE, including a specialist range for women for the past 50 years.

“The number of women joining the industry is slowly growing year-on-year,” said Rob. “We’re seeing more women in technical jobs and the demand for technical clothing is increasing as is our number of products for women to choose from.

“Women’s PPE is still a challenge. The majority of PPE is still a bulk manufacturing product. Often the cost for women’s PPE can be significantly higher due to the economics.

“I would say 15% of the garments we produce are for women. Whereas men may have three styles of trousers for a specific job to choose from, a woman would only have one.

“If there were more women in the industry the range would be greater and the issues surrounding
bulk buying would improve.”

Danny Rogers, director of Great Yarmouth-based PPE provider Gibb Group, said: “We provide a specific female range, and have done so for the past 15 years, but orders for female PPE still only equates to around 2% of our sales.

“Our female Mavric range of coveralls are proving particularly popular at the moment.
“Over the past three to five years specific women’s uniforms have picked up. Today’s offering is better than it was, but we are finding some women are still wearing men’s garments, however, some of this is also due to some women preferring the fit of the men’s garments.

“Even though more women are being employed in the sector, and we’ve had positive feedback about the range, the options available for women’s PPE in terms of sizing and colour isn’t as extensive as
the men’s range mainly due to demand.”

In oil and gas, a survey by the AXIS Network, in partnership with Step Change in Safety, found that 62% of women surveyed in the offshore energy industry said their coveralls did not fit properly, while 8% said they had been bumped from an offshore flight because they had been unable to find a safely fitting survival suit.

North Sea Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) chief executive Deirdre Michie OBE said companies across the sector needed to step up for their female employees to “ensure they offer a wide range of technical clothing and protective equipment to cater for the diverse workforces of today.”

She said: “Safety is central to everything that we do – and correctly-fitting clothing is a core part of that. The clothing needed by women working offshore needs to be designed to suit their needs and enhance their safety.

“Clothing designed for men will often be unsuitable. And if it’s unsuitable it will also risk putting women off joining or staying in that workforce – so this is an inclusivity issue as well as a safety issue.”

Currently, women make up 18% of the offshore wind industry. The government (Offshore Wind Sector Deal) aims to increase women in wind to 33% by 2030.

Women made up 22% of employees in the oil and gas industry worldwide in 2020, according to Catalyst.

Marine survey specialists Gardline Ltd, based in Great Yarmouth, said it provided female-fit PPE for its employees, but buying supervisor James Brassfield said options were “still limited”.

“I quite regularly get requests for size 3 and 4 boots, and there are very limited options compared to the larger sizes like 12-13, which I rarely get requests for.”

Paulina Borkowska, an engineering apprentice at Gardline Ltd, who has been with the company since she was 16, said: “I am a very small size and I struggle to get PPE that fits. Even the smallest women’s PPE is too big for me.

“As part of my job I have to climb masts and climbing masts with baggy trousers is not only difficult, but also dangerous. To be honest though, I’m used to it - so I always ask for my PPE ahead of time,

then the company pays for me to have the PPE altered to fit.”

Clearing the Pathway for Women in Offshore Wind started interviewing women in the industry in May, aiming to address why the number of women in tech and engineering-based roles is “still incredibly low”.

“Women are starting to move through the commercial side, some senior positions and graduate roles, but there’s quite a disparity, concern and issue with the tech and engineering roles,” said
Dr Stalker.

“We really want to unpick the numbers, and the first stage of the project is to understand the whys? What are the challenges, the barriers and advantages between different women from different backgrounds in the industry?

“Long term we are hoping this will inform a bigger study where we will cross-analyse organisations and case studies within the sector to produce a foundation that organisations can use to keep, boost and attract women in the workforce.

“We will look at what is working well, what isn’t and start to move forward with the foundation of some new interventions. But first, the issue of women’s PPE safety needs to be further investigated to see if this is an industry-wide issue.”