These boots ain't made for working!

International Women's Day: Unite Hinkley Point C rep Maria Boyle fights for better women's PPE

Reading time: 6 min

Every day this week on UniteLive, we’re featuring one of our many inspiring women members in the lead up to International Women’s Day on Friday (March 8).

Today, we hear from Unite health and safety rep Maria Boyle and her fight for better PPE for women in her workplace.

A Unite health and safety rep is calling on her employer to provide appropriate safety shoes and other PPE for female workers.

 Maria Boyle is a full-time health and safety rep at Hinkley Point C (HPC) in Somerset and runs the site’s joint women’s forum group.

 Maria feels that there are many problems in the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for women workers. Though she works in construction, this isn’t a problem unique to the sector — many women face similar issues in agriculture and food production.

 Maria said, “It is hard for women to get PPE to fit because most companies normally only buy men’s and then say it is unisex. Sadly, this does not fit a woman properly.

 “One of the worst is boots. Men and women are not built the same way and so boots really don’t fit us properly, and a lot of us have bad feet because of ill-fitting boots that we spend many hours in.”

 Female workers having to buy their own PPE so that it fits properly is sadly not uncommon, but it is something that is in contravention of health and safety law.

 The employer has a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to provide a safe working environment and conduct a “suitable and sufficient risk assessment on the health and safety of their worker” under the management of health and safety at work Regulations 1999.

 The TUC points out in its guidance document – “Working feet and footwear” – that “The personal protective equipment at work Regulations 1999 also says that, if a risk has been identified and cannot be controlled any other way, then protective equipment must be provided. This includes footwear. If an employer provides protective equipment, such as footwear, then it must be provided free of charge and there must be instructions on how to use it safely”.

A study last year from Clearing the pathway for women in offshore wind — a collaborative research project highlighting the gender gap in offshore wind from the University of East Anglia and Offshore Wind Industry Council — said that well-fitting PPE is not only a safety requirement, but also an issue of inclusivity.

It proves that a lack of female-specific workwear deters women from entering or remaining in technical roles in the energy industry. Women working on-site and offshore in the wind industry have told the project they are unable to access the correct PPE.

Though PPE is meant to make workers safer, poor and ill-fitting PPE for women can have the opposite effect and result in a more hazardous working environment.

Baggy sleeves and long trouser legs on boiler suits and overalls can get caught in moving farm machinery or be a trip hazard. Protective gloves can also increase safety risks if they are not the correct size. As women often have smaller hands than men, this is a common problem which can lead to not getting a proper grip of equipment. Meanwhile, for those working at height, harnesses can pose a problem if not fitted correctly.

 As Maria highlights, feet are one of the biggest issues. Women’s feet are not only smaller, but also men’s feet are wider with larger ankles, so wearing a “unisex” safety shoe can cause slipping, rubbing and a lack of proper support. These problems can lead to a variety of health issues such as stress fractures, sprains, strains, calluses, blisters and chilblains.

 Men’s boots (left), Maria’s boots (right)

There are many reports highlighting the shortage of PPE for women working in industries such as agriculture and construction, but with the hard work of Unite reps like Maria, things are slowly improving.

 Maria explained how her campaign is getting results for female colleagues.

“Since becoming a Unite health and safety rep, I have managed to get female toilets out on site and have set up the women’s forum. We have a meeting once a month where all women on site are welcome to attend and get involved.

“We have also had people who run mental health buddies come and tell us all about what they can do and how everyone on site can help.”

Regarding PPE, Marie said the forum has been fighting hard to get her employer to look at better uniforms for women workers and are in talks for more trials.

Maria explained, “We are just in the process of trying to get a new uniform trialled, which includes trousers that are black and just above the knee, and then the hi-vis yellow, and we are also pushing for an elasticated waist with a drawstring for our changing bodies over the month.

“Trousers can be very uncomfortable and ill-fitting during the month. We also have problems with shirts and especially gloves as many women have small hands.”

Maria hopes that her workplace campaign can be rolled out further in future. She added, “I hope to be able to get the company to conduct a trial on women’s boots and the new trousers. Obviously at the moment I am focusing on the company I work for, but we hope to roll out the trial to other companies on-site if I manage to win.”

By Keith Hatch


Unite Equalities is hosting a special International Women’s Day online event on the day after IWD – Saturday (March 9), from 10-11.30am. You can hear from more inspiring Unite women members about the difference they’re making in their workplaces. The event is open to anyone – don’t miss out. You can register to attend here.