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Gender blind

Protecting the safety of women in the workplace

February 1, 2010

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KEY POINTS

  • Very low numbers of women enter the trade industries, some believe because of the risk of harassment or fears about their lack of physical strength.
  • Harassment and intimidation from male co-workers remains an issue, although the severity of the harassment seems to have eased over time.
  • Women often are put at risk by being forced to use personal protective equipment that does not properly fit. Although female-specific PPE now exists, it is still not the norm on many worksites.

In 1999, OSHA’s Health and Safety of Women in Construction workgroup and the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health issued a report on the state of women in the construction industry. The report found a number of disparities between men and women in the workplace, and these disparities often had a negative impact on the safety of female workers.

One of the primary problems found in the workplace was a lack of personal protective equipment and tools that accommodated a woman’s body. PPE was issued in sizes far too large for women, impacting a worker’s ability to safely perform her job. Perhaps more troubling were the attitudes and behavior women reported experiencing in the workplace. Often, women reported being intimidated by men who did not wish to be working alongside women, believing them to be inferior and physically incapable of performing the work.

Since that report was issued, how much has changed? Has the workplace become a more accepting and safer place for women in the past decade?

Trends of women in trades

Nontraditional occupations are designated by the Department of Labor as those in which women make up 25 percent or less of the total number of workers. A number of industries previously designated as nontraditional only 20 years ago – such as physicians, lawyers and correctional officers – are no longer designated as such. However, few trade professions employ a significant percentage of female workers.

Some speculate that one roadblock to women being interested in the trade industries is the perception that these occupations are too difficult and dangerous for women. A number of trade organizations for women exist, many of which are focused on addressing that question and encouraging girls to consider pursuing careers in the trades. One such organization is Cleveland-based Hard Hatted Women, founded by Terri Sandu. The organization helps place women in jobs where they are underrepresented, such as construction, maintenance, manufacturing and transportation.

“I definitely think there are concerns about safety on the job,” Sandu said. “I think [young women] are sometimes discouraged by their parents either by the thought of ‘Well, you’re not going to be strong enough to do this’ or the belief that they are going to face harassment and potential endangerment.”

The idea of women being too physically weak or somehow unable to perform trade work is one most women in trades roundly reject. Molly Martin serves on the board of directors of Tradeswomen Inc., a professional organization based in Oakland, CA. She believes stereotypes and discrimination lead individuals to believe women are limited from performing nontraditional occupations, although she – and many other women in the field – contend that this is simply not true.

The question of whether women suffer more injuries or different injuries than men while working in trades is inconclusive. Few studies have been conducted, and although Martin would welcome more focused research, she said she does not believe there is much push to examine women’s injuries and safety on the job. “They’ve forgotten about us,” she said. “It’s like we’re not even here anymore.”

Harassment and intimidation impact safety

On-the-job harassment is something most women acknowledge is still present, although it is perhaps not as pervasive as it once was. “I think that things are better for women on the job now than they were when I was working construction,” Martin said. “We see a lot of [harassment] now, but we saw a lot more of it back then and there was no recourse.”

In the 1999 survey, 88 percent of women reported sexual harassment in the workplace and 41 percent reported mistreatment at work because of their gender. “You’re always going to find maybe a few bad apples,” Sandu noted, “but overall I think that there’s a much better openness to women in any field you go into.”

Amy Tughan, a communications worker in Ottawa, Ontario, who has worked as a homebuilder and commercial construction worker, agreed. “Most of the time the guys aren’t an issue,” she said. “It’s usually just a couple of jackasses out of a hundred guys on a site, and once the good guys get to know you, they put a stop to it pretty quickly.”

However, just because things are improving does not mean the problem does not continue to exist. It is an issue OSHA is mindful of. “Tradeswomen still face discrimination, isolation, lack of support and sexual harassment in many instances,” OSHA spokesperson Richard DeAngelis said. In 2008, the Chicago-based trade organization Sisters in the Trade – Unite Now! sent an electronic survey to its 300 members, and results indicated harassment is still present in many workplaces.

“Of the respondents, 52 percent said men ‘refused to work with them’ at construction sites,” DeAngelis said. Many respondents also reported “that isolation, physiological and mental stressors drove a fear of retaliation by assault.” Harassment in and of itself is a workplace safety issue. However, the problem can be compounded when harassment intimidates women to the point where they act in an unsafe manner.

“Intimidation may prevent women from asking for assistance or reporting injuries or hazards,” DeAngelis said, adding that harassment can come not only from co-workers but from supervisors as well, making the problem even more challenging. Workplaces where women are discriminated against or not made to feel wanted may cause the female workers to act unsafely in an effort to “prove” themselves to the men.

“Women tend to do things that they know they shouldn’t because they often feel as though they are being dared to do it by the men,” Tughan said. “[Men say] ‘She’ll never do that, she’s just a chick.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ That’s when women get hurt, by doing stupid things to prove themselves.”

Martin agreed with that sentiment when she was starting out. “If you’re the only woman on the jobsite, you’re representing all womankind,” she said. “You can’t fail – that’s how I felt.”

Eliminating discrimination

Creating a work environment that is open and welcoming to women can help prevent female workers from taking such unnecessary risks and incurring injuries. Yet attempting to do so can feel like walking a tightrope. Give women too much latitude and you run the risk of creating resentment among employees, but if you do nothing to check discrimination and harassment, even greater problems can surface.

DeAngelis offered OSHA’s tips on keeping workplaces free of discrimination:

  • Set clear and strong policies against workplace discrimination. Employers need to establish anti-discrimination policies that set clear standards and also provide penalties for employees who engage in discriminatory or intimidating behavior at the workplace. The policies and penalties should be set forth in employee manuals or handbooks, as well as the procedures for reporting and investigating discrimination claims.
  • Educate employees through diversity training about behaviors that are legally deemed to be discriminatory or intimidating.
  • Supervisors and managers need to convey to their employees that they can discuss any allegations of discrimination with anyone in management without fear of reprisal.
  • Thoroughly investigate all allegations of discrimination in the workplace.
  • Treat the discrimination claimant with respect and understanding.
  • Supervisors should keep the discrimination allegation confidential.
  • Take quick action. Once an allegation has been found by management to be true, they must take swift and decisive action to punish the offender in accordance with established workplace policies.
  • Supervisors must encourage communication with their employees to learn of any potential problems and what they can do to help their employees. Open communication encourages workers to share with management their concerns and issues.
  • Never play favorites with employees. It is important that all employees are accorded the same benefits, privileges and opportunities.
  • Consistently foster an environment of fairness and equality in the workplace.
  • Supervisors should set a positive example of supporting workplace diversity.
  • Keep your personal beliefs personal. Your personal philosophy regarding race, religion, sexual orientation and other potentially contentious issues should not affect your duty to monitor workplace discrimination, nor should it cloud your views regarding what is legal and just.

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