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Are There Increased Safety Concerns for Women in Construction?

The construction industry has always been a dangerous one. From strenuous physical labor to operating powerful equipment, a number of serious hazards exist on a daily basis. These dangers apply to both genders, but female construction laborers may face a particular set of workplace challenges that require special attention. In the year 2010, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 818,000 women were working in construction. It is important for construction employers and employees to be fully aware of these unique dangers, in order to improve safety conditions for female construction workers.

Injury and Fatality Statistics

The number of women working in construction reached its peak from 2005 to 2008, when over one million women were working in the field of construction. Since 2008, there has been a steady decline, though the downward trend reflects the general decline of employment opportunities in construction. That being said, as of 2010, women comprise approximately 9% of the construction work force. Moreover, they have moved from clerical and support staff to more essential roles such as production and management. As such, they constitute a significant percentage of the construction sector, and their needs ought to be taken seriously.

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health reports that on average, 32 women out of every 10,000 workers suffer construction injuries every year, while the fatality rate stands at .15%. These numbers are better than those for male construction workers – 154 injured workers per 10,000 workers and a fatality rate of 1.1% – though that is mainly attributable to men typically being assigned to more hazardous tasks. The majority of fatalities for women involve moving vehicles, falls, and violence. Approximately 33% of all female fatalities involved women who were working as flaggers (crossing guards), a job which is often staffed by women. In contrast, only 3% of male fatalities were flaggers.

Gender Specific Equipment

According to the US Occupational and Health Safety Administration (OSHA), there are a number of specific areas which studies have shown require special attention with respect to female injury prevention on construction sites. One area of concern is personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal protective clothing (PPC). Unfortunately, the gear with which workers are provided is often unisex. This one size fits all approach constitutes a fundamental error in workplace safety. Studies have shown that the typical anatomical differences between men and women necessitate that women receive uniquely designed equipment and clothing to ensure maximum safety.

According to the International Safety Equipment Association, there has been a significant improvement in this regard in the industry. More companies are providing their employees with a greater range of sizes, to reflect gender-specific needs. A greater awareness of the distinction between male and female equipment would go a long way in increasing female safety on the job.

Sanitary Restrooms

Far from being a luxury, sanitary restrooms are a leading cause of concern for female construction worker safety advocates. Poor conditions in restrooms have led many women to avoid using the bathrooms at all costs. In order to do so, some female workers have refrained from drinking water; the subsequent dehydration can lead to heat stress and other health problems.

In addition, women who do not use the facilities have exposed themselves to greater risk of developing urinary tract infections, bladder infections, and kidney infections. Finally, certain cases of contact with unsanitary toilets can lead to serious infection. It is therefore incumbent upon construction employers to provide adequately sanitary bathrooms for both men and women. Of course, this would benefit the health of male construction workers, as well.

Equal Training

Another alarming trend, according to a report by OSHA, is the lack of adequate training for women. Many women report that they have not received the same training as men. Much of the knowledge in construction is taught informally, passed on from bosses to workers, and among colleagues. Due to social divisions in the workplace, many women are not granted access to these vital conversations, and as a result are lacking some of the critical pieces of information they need in order to ensure their safety. Safe machine operation, and more effective techniques help maximize the safety of construction workers, but only if this information is shared with all workers – not just male ones.

Sexual Harassment

Unfortunately, many women have reported experiencing sexual harassment of some form. In fact, one study indicated that the construction industry held the dubious distinction of carrying the second highest number of reported sexual harassment incidents. 83% of women surveyed reported that they had “received unwelcome sexual remarks.” In particular, women felt unsafe when they were isolated and outnumbered by male colleagues, many reporting that they suffered acute stress due to those situations.

Many of the above hazards for women are preventable when appropriate attention is given to these risks. Fortunately, this past August, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) joined forces with OSHA. Hopefully, this new alliance will bring greater improvement in this critical area of safety for female construction workers.

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