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Published: March, 2020; Vol 16, Num 10

Improving Safety & Health for Women in Construction

There are over 11 million workers in the U.S. construction industry, but only 3.4 percent of frontline workers on construction jobsites are women. With demand for skilled tradespeople increasing, more employers are turning their attention to recruiting women into the construction industry. To accomplish that goal, both labor and management must take time to understand and eliminate the barriers stopping more women from choosing a career in construction. 

While many construction hazards affect men and women equally, some issues have a disproportionate impact on female construction workers. Recognizing and addressing these specific hazards, which include both physical health risks and issues related to mental health, has the potential to improve safety and health for all workers on site, regardless of gender.

1. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

In today’s construction environment, the vast majority of PPE, including respirators, fall protection harnesses, gloves and safety goggles are still designed with men in mind. The majority of PPE available on jobsites is too large for women or does not fit correctly. Ill-fitting PPE puts women at risk for caught-on/in/between hazards or health hazards when, for example, a respirator doesn’t adequately protect against chemical exposures. PPE that interferes with work or is uncomfortable is less likely to be worn at all, putting both the worker and the company at risk.

2. Sexual Harassment & Workplace Culture

Hostile work environments, sexual harassment, workplace isolation and fear of retaliation for reporting workplace hazards or harassment are a reality for many women in construction.

A hostile workplace can lead to numerous safety and health concerns, including long-term stress and other physical and mental health effects. Even the perception that harassment is permitted or tolerated can have negative impacts on a company’s ability to recruit and retain female workers. This includes situations where victims are punished for reporting, perpetrators are not appropriately punished for harassment or reports are not taken seriously.

3. Increased Risk for MSDs

Women are between two and five times more likely to experience upper body sprains and strains at work than men. Excessive lifting of heavy objects, performing repetitive motions and working in unusual or awkward positions for prolonged periods are all known risk factors for back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), regardless of gender. Strength, size, age and anatomical differences all play a role in the number of lifts a person’s body can tolerate. In addition, hand tools are typically standardized to fit a man’s hand and tend to be too large for a woman’s hand to grip tightly. All of these factors lead to women having to exert more force for the same task, which puts them at greater risk for injury. 

Photo courtesy of LECET Northwest

4. Reproductive Hazards in the Workplace

Construction workers have the potential to be exposed to chemicals and other hazardous substances at work. Many of these chemicals affect the reproductive system or other systems in the body, putting women who are at reproductive age at increased risk. Some employers have historically dealt with this by denying job access to women, effectively limiting work opportunities. This practice could also lead female workers to hide a pregnancy to maintain their job, possibly endangering themselves and the fetus. Although this article focuses on women, male workers can also be exposed to reproductive hazards. 

5. Inadequate or Unsanitary Toilet Facilities

Temporary toilet facilities are typically unisex and often lack clean toilet seats and hand-washing options. Doors that don’t lock, toilets with broken locks or poorly located toilets are all potential problems for female construction workers. Access to safe and clean toilet facilities for women in the workplace removes these stressors, allowing female workers to concentrate on performing their jobs properly and safely.

Building a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion

Photo courtesy of LECET Northwest

Construction employers should also work to address other issues that are less tangible, but no less important. At a basic level, many female workers do not feel welcome on construction jobsites. Examples could include not being given the same peer support on the job as their male counterparts, on-the-job training being limited to observation in an attempt to protect them from difficult assignments or being assigned the same routine tasks over and over again instead of progressing to more complex, skills-based tasks. This lack of opportunity denies women the ability to adequately learn their trade and build a career as a productive employee.

These examples may not violate any OSHA laws, yet they are real examples of the challenges women face in the industry. Successful companies create an environment that fosters respect and understanding and provides the same level of safety and job opportunity to all workers. In short, some of the old-school attitudes and culture within the construction industry must evolve.  

The LHSFNA’s new pamphlet, Women in Construction: Improving Workplace Safety & Health, includes more information on the hazards listed above, including steps that both employers and workers can take to address these issues. To order, visit the Fund’s website at www.lhsfna.org and click on Publications. 

[Nick Fox]