So, Spain’s La Roja tamed England’s Lionesses to win their first-ever Women’s World Cup. Yet players from both sides had battled through bad injuries to even get to Australia and New Zealand. Chartered IOSH member, Beth Holroyd, who works in the construction sector, draws some interesting parallels with women in industry.
England’s goalkeeper Mary Earps stopped Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso converting a penalty in the Sydney showdown but ultimately couldn’t deny her a glorious comeback from the knee ligament injury that kept her out of last year’s Euros campaign.
Hermoso’s teammate, double Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, was only back playing at the end of April after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament 10 months previously. Beth Mead, England’s star of the Euros, completely missed the World Cup as she became one of five of the world’s top 20 women players to suffer a dreaded ACL injury in 2022. All of these players had to miss major tournaments for their country due to injuries they likely wouldn’t have had if they’d been wearing better boots.
Others that made it to the World Cup still became regularly acquainted with blisters and foot injuries, even stress fractures, because their boots weren’t developed with women in mind, despite the shape of women’s feet being very different to that of men. A recent report revealed that, shockingly, ill-fitting boots put women players at a two to five times greater risk of picking up a serious knee injury.
The boot manufacturers say they’ve designed women-only and gender-neutral products, though retailers aren’t stocking them due to their relatively high cost. Yet it isn’t only boots that are the problem. Sports bras have been developed specifically for runners, not footballers who make so many more rapid changes of direction. The balls used in women’s football are no different to those used in the men’s game, despite there being more incidents and greater severity of concussion endured by the women.
A similar story
The experience of women footballers around the world is mirrored in so many other occupations, where women have to work through similar everyday discomfort. This exposes women workers to, at best dispiriting feelings of not being included and, at worst real threats of serious physical harm.
Let’s get this straight, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) isn’t a nice-to-have. The law places a duty on every employer in Great Britain to ensure that suitable PPE is provided to ‘employees’ who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work. PPE is essential kit and forms the last line of defence in keeping workers safe. And yet for so many women, it doesn’t fit, it isn’t safe and it can cause problems in terms of their health, wellbeing and sense of belonging in the workplace.
When I started out at 17-years-old, I was asked to share PPE from a pool supply, despite being much smaller than my colleagues. The PPE was either sized large or medium men’s and as a 5ft 5, slim-framed female, it absolutely drowned me. I was an inexperienced apprentice who‘d not yet found her voice to say this was unacceptable. However, after speaking with a college tutor, they ordered some PPE so I wouldn't have to share.
I've experienced blisters on blisters because boots designed with a male recipient in mind didn’t fit my size 4s properly! As many of my female colleagues know, safety boots designed for men are much wider around the toe box and ankle. I had to wear a couple of pairs of socks and apply a ton of plasters to stop them rubbing – though this often didn’t work.
The same goes for gloves. I've very small hands and often have to have gloves ordered in to fit. I talk a lot about how my sector, which has a major skills shortage, needs to attract a more diverse workforce: But how can we expect to attract women into an industry where they won't feel safe or included?
When I’ve complained, it hasn’t been easy - I've had the eyerolls and the comments that suggest I’ve gone into an industry that’s better suited to men, or that PPE isn’t there to make you look nice at work!
Wearing ill-fitting and wrongly sized PPE is inherently unsafe. I used to work for a local authority where I managed harbour maintenance projects. After undertaking my initial risk assessment I’d identified that I needed a high visibility coat that included a life jacket. At the time, a female jacket of this kind didn't exist but a jacket that would fit a man cost around £200-£300. My employer ended up having to order me a bespoke jacket, costing just over £650.
A study was completed on LinkedIn by the Bold as Bass group, which showed that 80% of females have been provided with ill-fitting PPE, with a further 32% feeling unsafe because of this. The problem goes beyond gender too. I've spoken out about the lack of modesty wear available for my religious colleagues who want to do their job safely without compromising their faith.
It’s encouraging to see some PPE brands develop their offering, but there’s much still to do. It's fine to offer PPE for women but, like women’s football boots, it can't just be a scaled-down version of a male piece of kit. Provision needs to be made for the menstrual cycle and menopause, with the use of breathable material; new mothers returning to work need comfortable clothing with adjustable waistbands; and don’t forget pockets (usually an afterthought in women’s workwear), allowing for full movement and sitting down when items are stored in them.
Women make up around 14% of the construction industry, and with the drive to encourage a more diverse workforce, this figure will only increase. More must be done to ensure women feel included and safe, ready to do their job to the best of their potential.
La Roja grabbed World Cup glory despite the tools given their players for the job, not because of them.
Beth Holroyd CMIOSH
Health & Safety Business Partner – Local Government at WSP