From Our Readers
December 16, 2014 12:05 pm

I work in an industry that doesn’t realize my bra violates safety regulations.

I work as an electrical engineer for dozens of generation plants across the nation. My day-to-day work doesn’t typically take me far from my home, but on occasion, I have the opportunity to visit power plants in order to meet with staff, check out new equipment, and troubleshoot issues.

I love my job. I love visiting plants. I love the excitement of getting right next to the huge equipment at our facilities; seeing great, impressive generators that supply electricity to people across the country. However, the pleasure I get from my job is leavened by the reality that electricity is dangerous and there is an immeasurable potential for severe on-the-job injury—because of my bra.

You don’t have to be in the power industry long to hear a dramatic story or watch a graphic video about arc flash, which is a primary source of death and debilitating injury in the industry, directly affecting approximately 10 people a day. If you’ve ever watched a video of an electrical explosion, you’ve seen an arc flash (if you haven’t, click here). If exposed to these explosions, personnel typically experience second and third degree burns over much of their body. To mitigate this damage, electrical workers wear special clothing that is resistive to burning and melting; or at minimum, wear clothing made of 100% natural fibers. Any synthetic or metal material can serve to elevate the level of injury experienced during an arc flash incident. Often, 100% cotton is worn.

It’s no surprise to anyone that both the engineering and electrical trade worlds are still predominately male. While that is changing, the change is slow. Many plants built before the seventies lack any dedicated women’s restrooms, as back then there weren’t any women. If they do exist, there is likely only one two-stalled women’s restroom, shared by all the female occupants of four floors. If you don’t want to take the stairs, you will probably have to take the freight elevator down, and just the one-way trip may consume 15 minutes of your day. That aside, the number of women choosing to become electricians is on the rise and plants continue to retrofit facilities in order to accommodate these ladies.

There is one area in the industry, however, which is constantly overlooked, and brings me back to arc flash and cotton clothing.

When was the last time you bought a 100% cotton bra? I bought the closest thing I could find at Victoria’s Secret about six months ago. It came from the Pink collection and was your standard tee-shirt bra with minimal padding and 100% cotton lining and shell, but for me it wasn’t enough.

There’s a label they slap on the electrical equipment at the power plants that warns personnel of the danger of arc flash and what they should wear to limit potential injury. Without fail, the label always requires “cotton underwear.” This is easy to comply with if you’re a guy—the standard pair of boxers is made out of some absurdly patterned cotton. But what about my underwear? It’s not so hard to find cotton panties, you usually just have to find that section of the store that sells them in a five-pack that your mom used to buy you. But what about my bra? I’ve tried to find a 100% cotton bra, or even just 100% natural fiber bra, but there is not one out there that doesn’t contain elastic, synthetic padding or metal/plastic parts. I cringe every morning I strap on my bra and acknowledge that the thing I’m depending on to support my breasts could irreparably damage them in an arc flash incident. I find myself weighing the risk of injury against my need to wear a bra.

The feminist in me wants to say that I should just not wear one, but the reality is that I do need a bra. I also need an industry that realizes the feeling of alienation a warning label can produce. I want to work in an industry that helps me keep my body safe, but for now, I work in an industry that doesn’t realize my bra violates safety regulations.

Jackie F. is an electrical engineer who enjoys working on the “big stuff.” When she’s not doing that, she’s probably flying somewhere to visit one of her many sisters. Regardless of what she’s doing, she’s probably also dancing. She is very open, but incredibly private, so she’ll answer your questions, but she doesn’t want you to follow her.

(Image via Lauren Friedman here.)