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Fit for purpose

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 16

Transport for London has launched a range of safety clothing specifically made for women. RTM spoke to project leader Eleshia Turnbull and London Underground’s construction programme director, Miles Ashley.

Neither the railways nor the construction sites helping to upgrade them are men-only zones any more, thankfully. Although there is still a long way to go to achieve a proper gender balance, the trends are positive. 

But personal protective gear and clothing has struggled to keep up with those trends. For years, women on construction sites have been forced to wear supposedly ‘unisex’ PPE, or clothing that was said to be for women but was actually just men’s clothing scaled down slightly and so badly-fitting. 

Eleshia Turnbull, who has led a project for TfL to rectify this issue, said a survey sent to women across the organisations highlighted the scale of the problem. “A lot of them said they had to wear really thick winter socks, or three pairs of socks, just for the shoes to fit. One woman said she felt like a clown because her clothes were so big on her. 

“The response that really hit home was some women saying they had their arms getting caught when they were going up shafts and stuff, because the clothes were that big. Others were tripping and not being able to lift their feet properly because their shoes were too big.” 


Miles Ashley, London Underground’s construction programme director, said it was clear that change was needed. “On the one hand, it’s disrespectful to women for them not to have the right equipment when they go to work. But it’s also not as safe as it could be. So it’s both about treating people properly, and meaningfully enhancing safety in our workplaces.”

The new range of clothing has been picked following a six-week trial from July-September 2015, and includes a wider range of high-visibility jackets, trousers, gloves and adjustable eye protection. 

Safety boots designed exclusively for TfL’s female staff are also in development, as is a tailoring service to ensure PPE fits properly and is safe. 

Finding the right boots was tough, Turnbull said. There were specific safety boots for women on sale, but they were either pink – “a big no-no, from the feedback we’ve had”, she said – or didn’t meet TfL’s strict safety requirements. They are now working with a specialist manufacturer to ensure the new boots will meet all those requirements on slip-resistance, puncture-resistance and so on. 

New thinking 

TfL’s supplier of safety equipment is Hayley Group, which has a good record of dispatching PPE quickly when it is needed, Turnbull said. But she added: “If I’m honest, it was tough in the beginning to get them around to our way of thinking. Manufacturers are driven by sales, and if you look at TfL’s workforce, 20% at the moment are females. But we are seeing increases.” 

Safety pins, rolled-up trousers and other workarounds should be a thing of the past with the new range of clothing. Melanie Ogden, tunnels and shafts project manager on the Northern Line Extension, said: “Taking part in the trial to source new women’s PPE has been enjoyable and has resulted in comfortable clothing that allows us to move more freely and work more effectively.” 

Ashley said that when the original research was done, encouraging people to speak up about what they found difficult about working as a woman in construction, the results came as “quite a surprise”. But luckily it was a problem that could definitely be solved. “We could do something really meaningful that will have a direct impact on how women work in our organisation in these construction environments. What’s really interesting is that some of our suppliers are now expressing interest in how they can follow that lead, and start to encourage people working in their organisations to have access to the same equipment.” 

Asked about the trends he sees with women working in rail and construction, he said: “I was at the Northern Line Extension site two weeks ago, and I walked into an office of younger engineers. Eight of the 12 were female engineering graduates – that’s a great thing to see. At Vauxhall, we got to 35% female on that site. So, you do see signs, I think, that we are beginning to make progress in this area. 

“We have some great, thriving women engineers and people in management positions in our construction division at TfL. We’re building momentum in this area, and beinning to gain some traction.” 

Turnbull said: “There’s a lot more we definitely need to do – but it’s a small victory for now.”

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