Approximately 872,000 women currently work in the construction industry, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor. Seventy-five percent of those women are in administrative, sales or management positions. This leaves 25 percent of women in the construction workforce exposed to the same daily safety and health risks as their male counterparts; yet, their specific protection from these hazards has not been fully addressed.
Too frequently, women are forced to use personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing that is not the correct size or fit. For fear of being ostracized on the jobsite, women are intimidated to make requests for proper gear that will set them apart from their coworkers.
These safety hazards create gender barriers and can deter women from seeking employment in the construction industry. It is important to acknowledge this stigma and educate employers on the detrimental repercussions of ignoring any safety standards. As construction companies push to fill the labor gap, it is imperative for companies to become progressive in their marketing approach and create a culture that will address the specific safety needs of women workers.
OSHA requires employers to provide all employees with a safe workplace, but every 18 seconds a worker is injured on the jobsite. Once a jobsite safety hazard assessment has been completed, a list of PPE should be disseminated to all employees. This list should also notify employees of the potential hazards, provide training on how to avoid injury and educate them on required PPE. It is the employer’s responsibility to supply the required equipment to each employee at no charge. However, the construction industry lacks the provisions, research and development necessary to provide personal protective equipment suitable for women.
Ill-fitting PPE and clothing compromise workers’ safety on the jobsite. Women have a right to test all equipment that is provided to them to ensure a proper fit. OSHA mandates PPE be designed anthropometrically, which is the science of defining human body dimensions and physical characteristics. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts anthropometric research to prevent work-related injuries and deaths by studying how work spaces, equipment and clothing fit a diverse worker population.
Most anthropometric data available to date is from the 1970s. This research was based on the body sizes and shapes of modern military personnel and the general working population from that era. This decades-old data does not represent the sizes and body types of today’s female workers.
A recent NIOSH study of 26 women construction workers evaluated the efficacy of a fall protection harness system. Their body size and shape information was measured while they were suspended in a standard size harness and standing with a harness. It was discovered that an integrated redesign of harness components is needed because 40 percent of the women did not pass fit-performance criteria in either the standing or suspended condition.
All project managers, superintendents and foremen should understand how to identify job safety hazards specific to demographics of their workers and their jobsites. Jobsite hazard communication plans and emergency preparedness plans should be in place and disseminated to all workers.
It is beneficial to hire a safety consultant that is familiar with the science of teaching and incorporating a corporate safety culture. The construction industry is evolving and companies are charged with staying ahead of these changes to attract and retain the skilled labor needed to complete their jobs. As the industry shifts and more women are encouraged to enter the trades, companies will no longer be able to ignore these gender disparities.