Historically, health and safety has been considered a male-dominated industry. However, great strides have been made in that area, and more women than ever before are entering the field. Women who work in traditionally male industries, such as construction, heavy machinery operation, and manufacturing are increasing the demand for female-specific health and safety innovations.
In celebration of International Women’s Day in March, OSG wanted to explore how health and safety has changed from a woman’s perspective. But research indicates that the industry has been slow to keep up with the health and safety needs of women. The lack of response is due to a combination of factors that include a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) innovation, absent female mentors, and slow changes to workplace violence and harassment legislation.
Personal Protective Equipment: One Size Does Not Fit All
It’s obvious that PPE has many benefits to safety. Gloves, aprons, protective glasses, and hard hats have been proven time and time again to protect workers from hazards and the risk of serious injury. PPE hasn’t changed much over the years, and there have been no real groundbreaking advancements or changes – especially for women.
The trouble with PPE is that it is often designed with men in mind. Females struggle to use oversized equipment safely. The poor fit poses safety hazards to women, as the PPE needs to fit appropriately in order to be effective. Women who feel endangered by ill-fitting PPE or that the PPE is uncomfortable, may not wear it, which puts them at an even greater risk of injury, illness, or death.
This is an especially poignant problem for women in construction who need to wear fall protection harnesses in order to complete work at heights safely. Working at heights equipment is very effective at protecting workers from falls. Most systems require an engineer’s input and approval, especially for determining and installing anchor points. In recent years, there’s been a large government push toward making sure that all workers who work at heights receive approved training that meets stringent standards. All of this constitutes great advancement aimed at reducing the risk to workers who work at heights. But, what about women who work at heights?
Fall protection harnesses were not designed with female workers in mind. Thankfully, most harnesses come in a variety of sizes, so that women can purchase one that fits them best. While there hasn’t been a ton of advancement for women who have to wear harnesses, Honeywell Miller (a major manufacturer of fall protection equipment) has introduced the MS Honeywell-Miller line, designed for and aimed at women. The MS Honeywell Miller H-style harness is designed to keep shoulder straps to the side and away from the chest. This style will help to reduce breast discomfort when wearing a harness, provided it is worn correctly.
While harnesses are very effective, there has been little change or advancement to the technology and design, especially changes that would make them more effective for female wearers. Of course, if a female cannot be fitted with correct fall protection equipment, she cannot work from heights. This restriction may unintentionally create barriers to work that she would otherwise be able to perform.
The future is not grim for women (or anybody!) seeking innovative and better PPE solutions. One very exciting innovation that is being explored is safety helmets. These are meant to replace hard hats on construction sites. They offer better fit, better side protection, and won’t tumble off in the event of a fall. The chinstrap that holds the helmet on is a key part of why this innovation is so exciting.
Another unique safety equipment solution comes in the form of Covergalls. In response to finding that coveralls worn during mining operations were ill-fitted for women, inventor Alicia Woods set about designing her own. Her tailored cuts and adjustable features ensure that the coveralls fit women of all sizes and shapes. This reduces the risk of snags and trips. Also included are secured pockets, so that personal items don’t fall out when pulling Covergalls off and on, two-way zippers for ease-of-use in small spaces, and adjustable wrist and ankle openings, and waistbands. Covergalls also features a rear opening to make using the bathroom easier for females who otherwise would have to remove the whole coverall each time. In fact, the features of Covergalls are so well liked by all coverall wearers, that men have started asking for their coveralls to have the same features, prompting Woods to start a subsidiary of Covergalls called Coverguys.
While helmets do not constitute a real change for women, Covergalls and the continuing innovation in women’s PPE points to forward thinking. As more women enter the construction industry, one can expect to see new and exciting solutions tailored to them.
Lack of Mentors
Females looking to break into the health and safety field are seeking mentors. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, which include slow-to-change attitudes toward women in health and safety, the mentorship just isn’t there. Without mentors, women may be intimidated when attempting to get established in the field.
An article published by the National Safety Health Council asked women in health and safety to describe their struggles. Adele Abrams cited lack of mentorship as a huge deterrent to women entering health and safety. All five of the women interviewed discussed the negative and unchanged attitude toward women in health and safety and the construction sectors. The women highlighted the difficulty of being taken seriously, listened to, and respected. Having more female mentors available to help women navigate these challenges is an excellent solution. With the increase of women in health and safety comes the increase of available mentors looking to help more and more women break barriers and destroy outdated attitudinal mindsets.
Workplace Violence and Harassment
Many positive evolutions to workplace violence and harassment laws in Ontario have made reporting harassment easier and made harassment completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, harassment is still a reality in many workplaces, with increasing prevalence in traditionally male-dominated sectors. According to Jennifer Tabor, who was also part of the National Safety Health Council’s article, harassment is still happening – it’s just quieter.
Movements such as #metoo and Time’s Up have increased the rate at which workplace harassment is being exposed and reported in the workplace. While Ontario’s workplace violence and harassment laws are working, it’s unclear whether they are evolving fast enough to keep pace with the reports coming about in the wake of #metoo and Time’s Up. If those movements tell us anything, it is that there is still much work to be done to protect women from workplace violence and harassment.
The Future is Bright
It’s clear that health and safety needs to evolve to make it more accessible to women. But how?
Health and safety exposure needs to start young. There’s a push for health and safety to be introduced in schools earlier and in more detail. This is an excellent initiative for all students, but the early exposure to health and safety has the power to encourage more women to pursue careers in health and safety.
For those females thinking about the trades, early exposure to health and safety education that espouses that there are protections and options available for women may make it more likely that they enter those fields.
Having mentors available will only further increase the willingness of students to take an active interest in health and safety. Lastly, women thinking about health and safety or trades positions need to know that they are safe zones, free from the threat of discrimination, violence, and harassment.
The future for women in health and safety looks to be a bright one. Their inclusion only serves to bring more innovation, ideas, and outlooks to the table. Implementing innovations and solutions as unique as they are will allow women to become increasingly visible in the health and safety and trades fields. It is a time of exciting change and technological advancement – the only limit to how far women can go is their imaginations!
Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator
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