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Fit follows function says Houston safety advocate

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

By Maureen McDonald
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

In a room full of people in business suits at Toyota’s recent supplier convention, Jane Henry stood out in a well-cut t-shirt, work pants and back pack adorned with safety striping. She was a one-woman showcase for a new line of attire for women working in manufacturing and other skill trades.

“Women die every year on jobs and ill-fitting clothing contributes to the problem,” says Henry, founder and CEO of the Houston-based SeeHerWork, a new player in the workwear market that launched this fall. Toyota invited her to meet first and second tier suppliers at the recent expo, “Opportunity Exchange: Challenge the Impossible, Together.”

Henry caught the attention of Good Morning America and CNN, according to Cindy Mahalak, public relations representative for Toyota, noting Henry is making manufacturing more welcoming and safer for women.

Just after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, Henry began moving boards and throwing stuff in the dumpster outside her home. Her gloves nearly fell in and she almost lost balance when her hands followed the ill-fitting men’s gloves. She began looking for safety options for personal protection equipment and found few examples in the workplace.

Women represent 32 percent of skilled trades in manufacturing they are making inroads in construction and oil extraction, not to mention transportation, energy and road repair. Henry wants them outfitted properly.

“These jobs aren’t safe for women. If they put duct tape to make coveralls fit properly they are at risk of getting off quickly in case of fire or toxic spill. If they don’t have safety shoes that fit they are at risk. Sometimes they are shunned by men in work groups, harming their health and self-esteem,” Henry noted.

Once she put her house back together Henry set out to create a new company. She had served as a management consultant for energy companies like Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil and knew the risks for female employees seeking these higher paying jobs.

She ran focus groups for hundreds of women. They all had stories about baggy pants caught in machines, giant gloves that wouldn’t stay on, or helmets that couldn’t tighten enough to be safe. Gloves fell off. Safety glasses were ugly and unsafe.

She tapped a product designer and came up with a helmet with a better twist guard, gloves for a smaller hand, glasses with tortoise shell finish along with contoured shirts that are smaller at the shoulders. Soon she will have coveralls that zip at the waist for easy removal. She is working on a mesh bra that covers up to the neck to avoid burns from welding or shards from building materials falling into the breasts.

“Toyota is interested in supplier diversity,” says Mihalak who accompanies Henry on a round of media interviews at the 29th annual supplier-Toyota conference. “We’ll invite her back to meet with procurement and engineering teams in spring. Safety is essential to Toyota.”

Women play a large role in Toyota manufacturing. Leah Curry is president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in West Virginia, Millie Marshall leads in Indiana and Susan Elkington presides over the Georgetown plant in Kentucky, Toyota’s largest plant in America.

Henry hopes to visit with all three female plant managers and other women in executive roles for auto plants. Clothing and equipment could be a deciding factor in outfitting thousands of Rosie the Riveters for our times.

“We’re talking to women in every branch of skilled trades and using female patterns to develop our products,” Henry said. “When women feel safe, they function far better on their jobs.”