Safety for Women in Construction

The construction industry as a whole has a less-than-stellar reputation for its treatment of women employees, and that’s a problem for several reasons. First, unequal treatment just isn’t acceptable in any industry or circumstance. Failure to treat all employees appropriately exposes a company to unnecessary liability concerns. And in the current environment, construction employers need all the help they can get, but the industry’s reputation keeps women from applying, creating a vicious circle.

Construction employers need to consider safety from two perspectives: The physical safety that allows all employees to avoid injury in a challenging environment, and the safety that comes with a workplace culture that’s fair to all employees regardless of gender.

Physical safety in construction begins with personal protective equipment (PPE), which might range from hardhats to required clothing to fall protection harnesses. In a male-dominated industry, standard PPE can be ill-fitting for women, which is uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst.

Ergonomics are another important physical consideration. Most tools are designed for men, and using a tool of inappropriate size or weight, or a work area of improper height, can present injury hazards. There may not yet be a solution to every problem in this area, but employers must be aware and do their best to accommodate differing body types.

Even more prevalent than the physical hazards of construction have been issues with workplace culture. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that 41 percent of female construction workers suffered harassment on the job in the span of a single year. A hostile work environment can take many forms, from outright sexual harassment to the isolation or ostracizing of female workers. Worse, many female employees are reluctant to point out such harassment to supervisors for fear of being labeled as malcontents.

Allowing such actions in any workplace is wrong, first and foremost, and presents massive liability exposures to employers. One construction firm was found by the Department of Labor to have permitted sexual harassment, retaliated against those who complained and even terminated nine employees for pursuing the issue. The settlement with the DoL ran to nearly $113,000.

Employers need to be proactive in preventing a hostile environment in both physical and emotional terms. Gender-appropriate tools and PPE, and gender-separate sanitary facilities, should be provided. And all employees should undergo sexual harassment prevention training as a starting point. Supervisors should be specifically trained in ensuring the safety of female workers, and all company communications should be gender-neutral.

Questions about this or any workplace safety issues? Contact Consolidated Insurance.