In one of the worst work-related disasters in United States’ history, a fire accident in New York City which involved the Triangle Shirtwaist Company killed 146 out of 500 employees in 1911. The clothing factory workers were mainly young, female immigrants who worked long hours for low wages. These women died needlessly because the employer locked the doors to all the stairway exits—thus, the ninth floor ended up with no access to fire escapes. The only way on and off the floor was an elevator, and the employer did this to prevent the young women from stealing scraps of cloth. This tragedy outraged the public who, in turn, called for dramatic reforms in workplace safety and health. Frances Perkins, who eventually became the first Labor Secretary, investigated the Triangle fire and tried to look for ways to prevent similar incidents from occurring.
According to a study that was submitted to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the number of women in the construction industry is growing:
“Today, nearly 60% of women aged 16 and over participate in the workforce. While women have made some gains in occupations traditionally occupied by men, construction trades remain overwhelmingly male dominated. In 1970, when OSHA was enacted, women made up less than one percent of workers in the construction trades.”
Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health
America’s workforce has really changed in the last 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I remember my first day on a large industrial construction site… I worked for a concrete construction firm that was building industrial control rooms for a petrochemical plant. It was the late 1990’s, and my presence was still very much out of the norm. The jobsite was loud and noisy and very exciting. I watched in awe as one of the world’s largest cranes set up a distillation column with every planned and coordinated move.
According to OSHA, the number of female employees working in the U.S. construction industry grew substantially by over 81% from 1985 to 2007. Then the economy tanked and, due to over 2.5 million construction jobs lost from 2007 to 2010, there was a sharp decline of women working in this field. Safety and health problems in the construction industry continue to create barriers for women who wish to enter and remain in this field.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a great collection of publications about protecting the health and safety of a diverse workforce. Other qualitative research studies have been made to identify the health and safety concerns of women in construction trades. Here are some areas of concern that must be considered in order to protect female workers:
- Exposure to physical and chemical agents
- Musculoskeletal disorders
- Lack of proper training and education
- Specific health and safety risks related to tradeswomen
It is considered nontraditional for women to work in the construction industry. More often than not, these women encounter poorly fitted personal protective equipment (PPE). The PPE must be fitted correctly so that it can protect the employee from the corresponding hazards. Imagine your first day on the job and you have been given PPE that fits poorly. You are a young woman. You really need this job to support your family. Will you speak up and say something? I hope that in all instances, the answer is yes. However, this is just not the case.
As an employer, keeping a good stock of PPE (with different sizes and designs) can be a real life saver. Discuss concerns and consider safety training for women, such as back injury and musculoskeletal disorder prevention. Sanitation and washing areas also need to be provided. The number of fatalities due to workplace violence is growing—making occupational violence one of the top two concerns for women at work. There are hazing incidents involving new employees. These reports discourage women who wish to be part of the workforce. But many problems can be corrected through engineering, behavioral, or administrative intervention.
What if it was your mother, wife, or daughter out there? Be aware of the working environment and prevent the hostility that women may encounter. Have a good training program in place and truly listen to their feedback. The number of women employed in the construction sector will continue to grow. Welcome them and their contributions to the industry. Most importantly, keep them safe.