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Vested Interest

HOW PERSONAL PROTECTION EQUIPMENT FOR WOMEN PAYS OFF

BY DEBRA WOOD

Women team members at Flatiron for the first time ever are wearing certified Class-3 safety vests designed for female bodies.

The women’s vest has a pocket in the back for a tablet or tools. PHOTO COURTESY OF FLATIRON

“Flatiron is one of the leaders in the construction infrastructure market, including diversity and inclusion,” says Zubin Taraporevala, procurement manager for Flatiron in Broomfield, Colorado, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “This vest is first of many initiatives. Corporate procurement likes to keep Flatiron on the cutting edge.”

Women across the company are now wearing the safety orange or yellow and reflective vests.

“I was blown away by [Flatiron developing it],” says Ashley Borgard, field environmental coordinator at Flatiron, working on the California High Speed Rail project. “I am proud to work for Flatiron.”

Borgard adds that her comfort and safety on a jobsite is now equal to others. “It’s way more comfortable,” she says. “I can do my job properly.”

WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION

An AGC of America analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates there are 8.3 million workers in construction occupations, of whom 10 percent, are women.

Worker shortages and worker quality remain a key concern for many contractors, based on a recent survey conducted by AGC of America and Sage Construction and Real Estate (http://bit.ly/2021businessoutlookreport). Fifty-four percent of survey respondents reported difficulty finding qualified workers to hire, whether to expand headcount or replace departing staff.

Women could train for those positions and fill the voids. But attracting more women to the industry requires a multifocal approach, says Tri-cia Kagerer, CSP, CPCU, CRIS, executive vice president of Risk Management at Jordan Foster Construction in Dallas, a member of multiple AGC chapters, and author of “The B Words: 13 Words Every Woman Must Navigate for Success.”

Societal and family cultures lead women to think construction is not a career option. Kagerer indicates males in leadership must open the door to women, and the corporate culture must embrace inclusion. Women also must adapt. Role models help women believe they can make it in the field.

Additionally, the industry must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) that fits women’s shapes. Several efforts have been taken to develop PPE for women. Anastasia Kraft founded Xena Work Wear, creating attractive women’s safety shoes.

Having correct fitting PPE “makes a monumental difference,” Kagerer says. “There is a uniform for construction, and it should fit.”

Dressing the part can increase a woman’s self-confidence, which contributes to being included as part of the team, Kagerer adds.

“It’s empowering and exciting,” she says. “It’s the vest and how we present ourselves.”

Taraporevala hopes developing equipment for women will entice more women to join infrastructure construction and stay.

“The number of women in construction has been increasing,” said Nicole Novick, product champion with Radians, a PPE manufacturer head-quartered in Memphis, Tennessee. “There are more women graduating from trade schools and engineering schools. Having a choice to wear PPE that is designed for women will improve their safety and provide workwear that fits them well and welcomes them into the industry.”

When a woman wears a man’s vest, the sleeves may be too big and could get caught on scaffolding or staircases. For instance, at a prior em-ployer, Borgard had been climbing down a ladder when her vest caught on a bolt, causing her to fall onto a piece of uncapped steel.

Ashley Borgard is wearing the new women’s vest on a jobsite. PHOTO COURTESY OF FLATIRON

“That’s a safety hazard,” Taraporevala says. “We have to be cognizant to make sure things are safe for everybody.”

DEVELOPMENT OF THE WOMEN’S VEST

Taraporevala and others at Flatiron recognized the issue and reached out to its vest supplier Fastenal, a safety-products distributor in Winona, Minnesota, and a member of multiple AGC chapters. Kellen Campbell, regional construction sales manager for Fastenal in the South-west, reported that he asked different manufacturers but could not find anything suitable.

Then Flatiron and Fastenal staff met with the team at Radians to design a women’s vest.

“We hit a home run partnering with Radians on this product,” Campbell says.

Flatiron desired ANSI Class-3 safety vests, which must be worn on highway construction projects. Class-3 vests require a certain square foot-age of fabric and of reflective material.

“This is the highest-level vest you can get,” Borgard says. “They put a lot of work into it. This vest is high quality and will last longer [than cheaper vests].”

Flatiron consulted on the vest’s development and allowed its female staff to try out a few rounds of prototypes, starting with handcrafted samples. Women from different offices tried the vests and offered constructive feedback to Radians, which Novick found quite helpful.

“We suggested a few changes that helped make it more comfortable and a better fit,” Taraporevala explains.

The development process lasted less than a year, he adds.

Recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all, AGC of America and Autodesk in 2020 launched a one-time grant program that addressed the need for better-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) for women who work at heights. As a result, they granted awards to 21 construction firms to provide more than 300 fall protection safety harnesses designed specifically for women. Read more here: http://bit.ly/AGCAutodeskGrantProgram.

WOMEN’S VEST FEATURES

The Radians team, which created the new vest, was comprised of women, including the tech specialist, product manager and sample makers.

“It’s a product made by women for women,” Novick says.

Men’s vests tend to be wider at the shoulders, with a deeper V in the front.

“We made the shoulders narrower and contoured the vest, so it fits well for women’s shapes,” Novick says. “We also put slits on the side and the zipper comes higher on the body.”

The changes included modifications to the sleeves, making them tighter to the arm, which would make them less likely to catch on things. However, a Class-3 safety vest requires a certain amount of fabric. Radians solved that issue by making the sleeves on the women’s vests long-er, a three-quarter length.

The women’s vest has four front pockets for phones or whatever and a large back pocket for a tablet or small tools. It features florescent and reflective tape to help the wearer be seen in complex environments.

Among the vest’s highlights are a cut that moves better with the female form, reducing the risk of the PPE being too baggy and getting caught on something extraneous. Flatiron purchased 579 vests and has distributed them to jobsites in the United States and Canada, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s the first Class-3 women’s vest in North America,” Taraporevala says. “The women have been most appreciative of it, not only from the safety standpoint and the comfort of the fit but also from a feeling of being welcomed into Flatiron more.”

Flatiron will know if the new vest is a success if its women employees wear them and order more in the future. Flatiorn’s vest sizes range from small to 5XL. The women’s vests are machine washable.

“This was a big win for all three organizations,” Campbell says. “It shows when you have good relationships with your customers, manufac-turers and distributors you can accomplish great things. I am excited about what is next.”

VESTS FOR EVERYONE

Although Flatiron pioneered development of the vest, the company has not kept it as a proprietary product. Any contractor can purchase a women’s Radians vest through Fastenal. Campbell reports strong demand for the product.

Novick hopes the vest’s success will help launch other products designed for women. Flatiron says it plans to continue to push the envelope for women’s safety and will lead efforts that will benefit all women in construction.

“We are an industry that shares improvements, because it helps advance the entire industry,” Taraporevala says. “Such ‘continuous im-provements’ not only help Flatiron but, hopefully, others as well.”

Fastenal Wants to Hear from You
Fastenal is working with manufacturers to develop product for women’s PPE. This is an ongoing initiative and interested construction women employees are invited to take a survey (https://pages.fastenal.com/womensppe/) that will help Fastenal best understand where its efforts should be focused.