The number of women entering the construction industry and its various trades is increasing year by year. Along with the primary safety and health hazards faced by all construction workers, there are safety and health issues specific to female construction workers. Many of these identified problems are easily changed through engineering, behavioural, or administrative intervention. Improving the work conditions for women in the construction trades will not only ensure their health and safety, but it will also serve to attract and retain women as workers during a critical time of labour shortages in this industry.
So what are the differences that affect women?
- Women are physically different to men, although there is often more variation between women than between men and women, for example, in physical strength.
- They carry out jobs that are often wrongly assumed to be safe and easy
- Workload and stress-related risks to women in the workplace are often underestimated.
Personal Protective Equipment and Clothing
Many women in the construction trades, complain of ill-fitting personal protective clothing and equipment. Clothing or equipment that is not sized, or does not fit, properly can compromise personal safety. It also may not function effectively in the manner for which it was designed. Poor fit compromises the protection offered by the garment or equipment. The lack of appropriate PPC can cause serious safety and health risks for women, and men of smaller sizes, who rely on protective clothing and equipment to help them keep safe.
Having inadequate or ill-fitting clothing, boots, gloves, or safety equipment presents a safety hazard for any worker. Ill-fitting personal protective equipment may be due to unavailability (i.e., manufacturers don’t make or distributors don’t stock), limited availability, or lack of knowledge among employers and workers about where equipment designed for a woman’s body structure can be obtained. Personal protective equipment intended for use by women workers should be based upon female anthropometric (body measurement) data. Work gloves must fit properly. Overly large gloves impair the transfer of sensory information from the hand, resulting in an excessive force being applied. Tight gloves can restrict blood flow. Hand tools should be designed so that the stress concentrations can be spread evenly throughout the hand
To reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders, tools, materials, and equipment should be designed based in part on ergonomic considerations. Tools and equipment, like clothing, are often designed to be used by average-sized men. Handle size and tool weight is designed to accommodate the size and strength of men, yet the average hand length of women is shorter than the average man’s. Their grip strength averages two-thirds the power of a man’s grip. The grips of tools are typically too thick. Tools like pliers require a wide grasp which puts inappropriate pressure on the palm, leading to the loss of functional efficiency. In addition, women do not receive training on how best to use tools and equipment designed for men.
Although there are more worksite exposures known to affect male sperm development than known to produce birth defects, some employers find it easier to resolve potential problems by denying jobs to women, especially pregnant women. While these actions may be well intended, their effect is the needless limitation on work opportunities for women or may result in a tradeswoman hiding her pregnancy, possibly endangering herself and/or her unborn child.
Access to sanitary facilities is frequently a problem on a new construction site. Temporary facilities are usually unisex, often without privacy, and generally not very well maintained. Sometimes there are no sanitary facilities available for women to use. Due to the lack of facilities, women report that they avoid drinking water on the job, risking other health problems. Unclean facilities can result in disease as well as urinary tract infection (for those who delay urinating rather than using such facilities). The availability and cleanliness of sanitary facilities are major concerns for tradeswomen who have encountered worksites with dirty toilets or no toilets at all!
In order to move forward what employers can do to reduce these gender-specific risks?
- Take a gender-sensitive approach to health and safety, recognising and taking account of the differences between male and female workers.
- Aim to make work safer and easier for everyone
- Include gender issues in risk assessment
- Look at the real work done and avoid assumptions about who is at risk and why
- Offer flexibility in working hours
- Involve women in health and safety decision making
This approach is beneficial for all employees, not just women and with the construction industry as a whole is facing a national crisis with respect to the availability of qualified labour, this will assist construction employers in their need to expand their recruitment efforts to previously untapped labour sources, including women. Thus, they need to ensure that the work environment is equally friendly to both sexes.