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Reimagining the Safety Vest with the Next Generation of Builders

Last month, I visited Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s campus to tackle a research question posed by a former construction management student: how can we alter traditional safety vests to be more inclusive?

The Cal Poly V.E.S.T. (Verifying Everyone’s Safety Together) Hackathon Event brought together industry leaders, students, and faculty to redesign a safety vest to meet the needs of the construction industry’s increasingly diverse workforce, where one size does not fit all. The goal of the hackathon was to develop safety gear that acknowledges, is designed for, and provides safety for a wide variety of body types, in order to increase both safety and inclusion on site.

After getting caught on a piece of construction equipment because her safety vest was too large, Lizette Galvez, Cal Poly CM alumnus and current project engineer at PCL Construction, started to question today’s protective equipment standards. Alongside her professor, Stacy Kolegraff, Galvez decided to research whether the problems she had personally faced were universally felt. Upon further investigation, Galvez and Kolegraff collected the data to prove that this was not an uncommon incident. Many other women did not have access to proper-fitting safety vests from their employers, and the two knew they had to do something to change that.

Two years after Galvez first began her inquiry into safety vests, Sophie Stewart and Amanda Schrader, vice president and president of the Cal Poly Women in Construction club, came on board to host a safety vest “hackathon” to try to answer Galvez’s initial question. A hackathon serves as an opportunity for students to collaboratively solve a problem, invent something new, and redevelop a flawed product. During the hackathon, Galvez returned to her alma mater to present her findings and hack a vest with a team.

On the first day of the event, participants discussed the overwhelming number of construction workers that do not have a safety vest that fits them properly. Of those, women were disproportionately affected -- identifying shoulders, underarm openings, waist, and hips as too loose, long, or wide. Galvez’s research also confirmed that women find an ill-fitting safety vest negatively impacts their confidence on the jobsite and their sense of presence and authority. For many women, the vest serves as a physical daily reminder they don’t belong and that the construction industry has failed to consider their needs.

After the opening session, we broke into six teams and got to work, collaborating on how we could transform a safety vest to address these common concerns. Safety standard representatives provided specific guidelines for the vests, including the minimum amount of reflective material required by ANSI. Each team had about 2 days to deconstruct a donated vest and alter it with zippers, buckles, ties, and any other material available.

Upon coming up with a concept, we taught ourselves how to use a sewing machine and put our plan into practice. After a few rounds of trial and error, our team completed our reconstructed vest just in time for the final presentation. Our new and improved vest featured tool-specific storage, a higher-up back pocket for better ergonomics, weight distribution with adjustable straps on the inside, and vertical zippers for multiple access points. The vest won “Most Functional” as voted on by the hackathon’s safety code committee members.

The Cal Poly V.E.S.T. Hackathon event ultimately spurred a larger conversation around how we can make construction safety standards more equitable for everyone --not just women.

“Although construction may have become complacent as an industry, it is okay to challenge that complacency to advocate for ourselves and our safety rather than just assimilating to the status quo,” said Stacy Kolegraff, assistant professor of the Cal Poly Construction Management Department. “Events like this are helping to empower workers and provide a platform for them to speak up when something isn’t safe. This is an opportunity to collaborate with others from similar circumstances and develop a real network of support.”

What item should be hacked next? Fill out this survey to help Cal Poly decide, and to get involved.

Procore’s Women in Construction program aims to make construction a global leader in workforce equality, to expand the definition of what construction looks like by supporting organizations that challenge bias and expand the labor pool. To learn more, visit procore.com/wic.