January 10, 2011
Women welders face many challenges, and one of the most overlooked is finding PPE that fits women welders properly, while providing them with a safe level of protection and allowing them to showcase their own personalities. Recently, some equipment manufacturers have stepped up their efforts to address this.
Choosing the road less traveled has always been more Jessi Combs’ style.
Growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota helped Combs appreciate speed, off-road vehicles, and the art of building a well-crafted automobile. Best known for her appearances on television networks like TLC and SpikeTV, Combs passed up a scholarship to attend a prestigious interior design school and chose instead to attend WyoTech in Laramie, Wyo., to study custom automotive design.
After graduating at the top of her class from WyoTech, Combs was given the opportunity to join the cast of TLC’s “Overhaulin’” as a guest fabricator. Since then she has experienced success hand over fist. She co-hosted “Xtreme 4x4” on SpikeTV, spent time as co-host on the popular television show “MythBusters,” and has made various appearances on “Two Guys Garage,” “TruckU,” “Full Throttle TV,” and “SEMA Show Special,” just to name a few.
Combs has found success by working hard and upholding confidence in herself and her abilities even when others questioned her. She has taken it upon herself to prove that women can be tough but still be, well, women. With all the success that has come her way there’s one thing that all of the endorsements, connections, and stereotype-busting haven’t fixed: finding jackets, gloves, and boots that fit.
Combs isn’t alone.
One of the most overlooked challenges women welders face is finding PPE that fits them properly, provides them with the appropriate amount of protection, and offers them an outlet to showcase their own unique style.
It’s not a secret why women welders have a tough time finding PPE that fits.Women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, make up less than 5 percent of the welding population. Therefore, it’s no wonder that equipment manufacturers focus more heavily on male welders, explained Combs.
“There just aren’t a lot of chicks in the industry, and the chicks who are just sort of live with what’s available,” Combs added.
According to Combs, finding gloves, steel-toe boots, and jackets or leathers has always posed a challenge. Standing at 5'6" and with a size 61⁄2 shoe, Combs sometimes has to find ways to make an oddly fitting item work for her.
“I have such tiny feet that finding steel-toe boots is next to impossible. It would be great if I could find stuff that could work for me that was legitimate safety equipment that fits. I’m constantly modifying everything I have to make sure it fits me correctly. If it’s baggy, then it’s a lot harder to do the work that I need to do because it’s constantly getting in my way,” Combs explained.
During a shoot for “Xtreme 4x4,” Combs was given a pair of gloves that were at least two sizes too big, and contractual obligations required her to wear the gloves in every episode.
“I could literally fold over a whole section of the fingers, which turned out to be an extra inch of glove that I didn’t need. The smalls were still too big, so they eventually custom-made extra-smalls for me to wear.
“If you’re working with certain tools while wearing gloves that are too big, your hand can rip off in an instant. For that reason it’s really important to wear gloves that fit you right.”
Some equipment manufacturers have answered the bell.
Revco Industries Inc., a manufacturer of welding jackets and gloves, offers the AngelFire™ brand of women’s PPE under its BSX® line. The brand includes the Firefly™ line of GTAW gloves and the VelvetArc™ line of welding jackets made especially to fit women.
Lincoln recently launched a line of welding gloves in smaller sizes geared toward women within its Red Line™ welding apparel brand. Phase two of the company’s apparel line will include women’s welding jackets. Jamy Bulan, welding equipment product manager at Lincoln Electric, said those will be unveiled in 2011.
There isn’t a whole lot of flexibility afforded when safety is concerned. Fit and protection level tend to outweigh personal style or appearance. But most people—male or female—like to have a little something that showcases their own unique style and personality, and that’s usually where helmets come in. Combs admitted that having the ability to select a helmet that boasts of feminine colors and designs is not her No. 1 priority, but the option to do so is still nice.
“We’ve got to be tough to survive in this industry, but at the same time we’re still women. We still want things that fit right and appeal to us. It’s like, come on, step it up. I appreciate being a woman and I like to show my personality in whatever I can.”
With the help of a third-party design firm, Lincoln Electric launched the Amp Angel™ welding helmet (see Figure 1). With design ideas in hand, Bulan approached some of the women welders at Lincoln’s on-site welding school for feedback and settled on a black helmet overlaid with dark purples and pinks—more G.I Jane than Barbie.
“I think people want more dark and gothic design elements in their helmet designs. These women are welding all day long next to a bunch of guys so they need to be tough, and that’s cool,” Bulan added.
3M Occupational Health and Environmental Safety Division, St. Paul, recently launched its Speedglas™100 series of women’s graphic welding helmets in four feminine designs from conservative to bold and flashy. Product Manager Derek Baker said the company saw the need not only for more female-oriented designs, but for helmet sizes that accommodate the female welder. The helmets come with headbands in two sizes or the option to remove a piece to fit a smaller or a larger head.
“Typically, we’d see women with two or more sweatbands on just to try and make their headgear fit comfortably and to help it stay on their heads. We’re just trying to tailor the equipment to fit women better,” Baker explained.
Creating PPE with designs and color schemes aimed at women is more than just about keeping them safe and giving them a way to express themselves, said Lincoln’s Bulan; it’s also a way to attract more women to the industry.
“That’s part of the intent. We want to market our products to the female welder in an effort to attract more welders to the industry. Honestly, the industry needs more welders. Companies need welders, are looking for welders, and are branching out in their marketing efforts to find welders. Women tend to be very good at repetitive processes because of their hand-eye coordination and control. They tend to make very good welders,” Bulan said.
Combs agreed, and welcomes more women to join her in the industry that she loves.
“If you are detail-oriented and thrive on the ability to be the tough girl and aren’t afraid to go out and get dirty while building things like bridges and cars and still go home and be the woman you were wired to be, then go for it. Welding is very empowering and it’s very rewarding.”
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