Improving Construction Safety for a Diverse Workforce

Kristen Sylva

As labor shortages continue to plague the construction industry, many companies have turned to attracting women into the trades as a potential solution.

“We need more people in this industry,” says Kevin Maitland, Vice President of Corporate Safety at McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., “and one of the best resources for reducing the labor deficit is women.”

But a more diverse workforce raises unique construction safety concerns–concerns that have always been around, but attract more attention as the workplace grows more diverse.

According to OSHA, women in construction have specific and unique needs and safety challenges on the traditional job site that must be addressed in order to make the construction site safe and welcoming for them. This report breaks those needs and challenges down into 7 categories:

  • Workplace Culture
  • Sanitary Facilities
  • Personal Protective Equipment and Clothing
  • Ergonomics
  • Reproductive Hazards
  • Health and Safety Training
  • Injury and Illness Data and Research

 

Workplace Culture

“The construction industry has been overwhelmingly male dominated for years,” says the OSHA report. “And on many job sites, women construction workers are not welcome.”

“Several studies,” it continues, “have shown that female construction workers suffer from gender and sexual harassment, a factor associated with low job satisfaction as well as psychological and physiological health symptoms and workplace injuries.”

Companies, like McCarthy, that have focused on developing diverse workforces have made strides in addressing workplace culture by promoting an inclusive environment where all are valued and engaged. One example of this effort is the McCarthy Partnership for Women, an employee resource group developed specifically to support the recruitment, development and retention of women in the construction industry to broaden diversity of perspective.

 

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The construction industry has been overwhelmingly male dominated for years, and on many job sites, women construction workers are not welcome

 

Sanitary Facilities

The OSHA report cites a lack of adequate sanitary facilities on job sites as a frequent health hazard for women.

“Due to lack of facilities,” it says, “women report that they avoid drinking water on the job, risking heat stress and other health problems… Unclean facilities can result in disease and other related health problems.”

Lack of facilities is a relatively simple problem to solve, and one that has already been addressed at companies like McCarthy.

 

Personal Protective Equipment and Clothing

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The lack of appropriately sized PPE for women has contributed to construction safety concerns

 

Ill-fitting PPE can be worse for safety than no PPE at all, and for women on the work site, it’s a circular problem. The historically low numbers of women on the job site have traditionally meant that PPE is sized for men’s bodies. The lack of appropriately sized PPE for women has contributed to safety concerns.

Maitland says that at McCarthy, they began some years ago to put pressure on PPE manufacturers to provide equipment sized for smaller bodies.

“Safety is the most important thing we do every day. Historically, our industry did a poor job of offering the right sizes of PPE, and part of it was that you couldn’t get it from the suppliers,” he says. “We had to work to get it right, and cue up the manufacturers who could help us address this. We’ve gotten through that curve, and at McCarthy we consistently offer a variety of sizes now.”

Kevin Maitland, Vice President of Corporate Safety. McCarthy Building Companies, Inc.

 

Ergonomics

Traditionally, construction tools have been designed with the average male body in mind. This creates ergonomic issues for women’s smaller bodies, which can lead to more repetitive stress injuries and excessive safety hazards.

Companies like McCarthy consistently work with manufacturers to help deliver tools and equipment appropriately sized and designed for diverse body types.

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Traditionally, construction safety tools have been designed with the average male body in mind. Image courtesy of Edera

 

Reproductive Hazards

Some chemical, physical, and biological agents that are common on job sites may be hazardous to fetuses. Because of the small sample size of tradeswomen, however, it has been difficult to ascertain and document which hazards are uniquely hazardous.

For this reason and others, employers have been historically reluctant to hire or put to work women who are pregnant. This contributes to making the workplace less welcoming for women, who may change careers to find a place where they can continue earning income throughout pregnancy.

More concerning, many tradeswomen report hiding their pregnancies in order to continue working, which can lead to women taking unnecessary risks.

The Ironworkers Union in New York addressed this problem with an historic decision to extend maternity leave to all union members to provide up to 8 months of paid leave before birth and 4 to 6 weeks of paid leave after. Many other unions are seeking to duplicate this success.

 

Health and Safety Training

While training is an issue for all workers regardless of gender, women face additional challenges. According to the OSHA report:

“Apprentices are not always provided with information and training on how to work correctly and safely… women in particular [may] not benefit from the informal training common among their male peers.”

McCarthy’s NET (New Employee Training) program sets every new worker up for success.

“We match each new worker with a mentor who really takes their interests to heart,” says Maitland. “It gives them somebody to talk to. The mentor gives them tips and training on how to properly work in the environment they’re in, and helps them address any issues they encounter on the job site.”

Lorien Barlow, the director of Hard Hatted Woman, a feature-length film about the work of female tradespeople, says another way that companies can address this and other problems is by assigning a safety officer to patrol work sites and check in with employees to make sure they feel safe and welcomed, and that they have access to everything they need.

 

Lack of Injury and Illness Data and Research

Because of the low number of women in the construction trades, useful aggregate data regarding health and safety is lacking. This makes it difficult for anyone, including OSHA, to draw clear conclusions about how best to keep women safe.

This leaves companies like McCarthy to forge their own path–something they are doing with passion.

“We are focused on making construction an attractive and rewarding career for everyone,” says Maitland. “In addition to the McCarthy Partnership for Women, we actively participate in national and regional industry organizations and conferences to enhance our approach. As an industry, we have a responsibility to make construction safe for a diverse workforce.”

 

Attracting Women Into the Construction Workforce

For McCarthy, attracting and retaining women in the industry is a key and ongoing focus. Maitland tells a personal story that illustrates why it matters.

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Due to the low number of women in the construction trades, useful aggregate data regarding health and safety is lacking 


“The women I’ve worked with in the field have been very talented people,” he says. “I remember a while back, one of our ironworkers had been a nurse. She entered the construction field because she didn’t like being inside all the time. She loved watching a project grow, and being a part of that. Bringing people in with a different view like that makes a huge difference for us and helps us deliver more creative solutions for clients.”

Around the country, companies like McCarthy are working hard to introduce the trades to young people (and their parents) through outreach efforts that showcase construction as a viable and rewarding career choice.

At some point, the scales will tip and women will make up a higher percentage of workers on the jobsite.

Companies like McCarthy are working to make that vision reality.

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