Safety, Health, and Wellness Issues for Women in Construction Trades


Safety for Women in Construction Image

Women working in the construction trades–carpentry, cement masonry, sheet-metal, iron working, electricians, and so on–face all the same challenges that men in the trades do, plus some challenges that the men don’t. These include ergonomic challenges from machines and tools typically designed for bigger people, the difficulty of finding PPE that fits properly, a work culture that’s at times unwelcoming and even abusive, sexual discrimination and harassment, and more.

In this article, we talk with Hannah Curtis, a Research Coordinator with the University of Washington, to learn more about these issues in general and to learn about a research study she conducted called Safety and Health Empowerment for Women in Trades (SHEWT for short).

We’d like to thank Hannah and everyone else involved in the study for their work, and give a special thanks for Hannah for taking some time out of her busy schedule to discuss these important issues with us. Below, she shares some eye-opening research about the scope of some of the problems, but also provides some tips for how we can all help to make the construction trades (and workplaces in general) a safer, healthier place for women. She also gives some great resources for women who are currently in the construction trades or who are looking to get into them–because despite some problems, the construction trades also offer great opportunities to women, as Hannah describes below too.

We’ve got a recorded video of the conversation for you immediately below, plus if you’d rather read, we have a transcript just below the MORE button.

Special Safety, Health & Wellness Challenges for Women in the Construction Trades

Convergence Training: Hello everybody, and welcome. We’ve got an exciting guest here at the Convergence Training blog, so let’s get right into it with this interview.

Today we’re going to be talking with Hannah Curtis. Hannah is a Research Coordinator with the University of Washington School of Public Health. She’s with the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, and today she’s going to talk to us about a study that she managed called SHEWT, and that stands for Safety and Health Empowerment for Women in Trades, and amongst other things Hannah will explain what “trades” means in this context very shortly.

So thank you so much to Hannah, we think you guys will all enjoy this. And with that, let me say “hello” to Hannah, and welcome. Hannah, can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself please?

Hannah: Sure. Hi Jeff, thank you so much for this opportunity. Like you said, I’m a Research Coordinator, which means I manage community-engaged research studies and program development focused on trying to improve the health and well-being of vulnerable workers. I have a Masters in Public Health and I’ve been working in public health for about eight years now, focusing on a variety of issues related to women’s health and safety, including sexual violence prevention. Now I’m in occupational health, which is an exciting field that lets me engage with workers directly.

Convergence Training: Great, great, Well, once again, welcome and thanks for your time. So, jumping right in, can you tell us a little about the SHEWT study that you participated in?

Hannah: Yeah. So SHEWT, like you said, is Safety and Health Empowerment for Women in Trades, a fun acronym our partners came up with. This is a multi-year community-engaged research study that the University of Washington has been working on in partnership with Washington Women in Trades and the Washington State Labor Education Research Center. This project has been funded by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries through their Safety and Health Investment Projects grants.

And this project really started because Washington Women in Trades approached the University of Washington, saying they’d been hearing a lot of stories from women in the trades who had been experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination in the trades. And they were interested in having the University help to document some of those experiences, and also to better understand what the health and safety implications were for women’s exposure to stress in the workplace.

We started out by doing focus groups with women and men in three different parts of the state to talk about their exposure to physical- and stress-related hazards on the job, and then we used the themes that we pulled from those focus groups to develop a survey to more thoroughly assess workers’ exposure to physical- and stress-related outcomes. We surveyed about 300 workers throughout Washington State, women and men from a variety of different trades, and then building off of that, we developed a pilot mentoring program to try to address some stressors that were identified in the research.

Benefits of the Construction Trades for Women

Convergence Training: Fantastic. Thank you. Can you tell us then, given all that, what are some advantages for women in participating in the trades, and I guess within that context, can you dial in exactly what “the trades” means for us?

Hannah: Yeah. So our study is really focused on construction trades, the various occupations that are actually out in the field, so you’re not working in an office or doing management work. This is being a carpenter, an ironworker, a laborer, an electrician, pipe trades, sheet metal, cement masons–there’s a wide variety of trades, but these are people who are actually out there doing the building work.

For the women in our study, there were a lot of advantages that they talked about, and they really loved the work they were doing, both because of the financial benefits and also the psychological benefits that it offered them. Construction has one of the lowest gender pay-gaps in all industries, meaning that women early roughly, but not quite, 1:1, the same as men for the same work. I think it’s about 96% in construction, which is a lot higher than other industries. Construction workers also make a really high hourly wage, which is great for women. Workers also talked about getting insurance and retirement benefits for themselves and their families.

And then in terms of the psychological benefits, there’s a real pride in your craft, working with your hands and seeing the tangible results of your labor, getting to say to your children, “Hey, I made that for the community, it’s going to be there forever.” That’s something that the women were really proud of.

Most construction workers also go through training where they’re actually paid to go to school, which is really exciting–you don’t have to take out a lot of student loans to do this kind of work.

Also, you develop life-long skills that you can take with you anywhere, you can get trained to be a carpenter and you can work anywhere in the country really.

Women also really enjoyed the physical challenge of the work itself, getting to work outside, not being stuck inside an office building. So there are a lot of real benefits for women doing this type of work.

Challenges the Construction Trades Present to Women

Convergence Training: OK, good. I’m a father a father of two daughters, so all those nice advantages sound good to me as well. So, if that’s the plus side and the rosy side, maybe now you can tell us some of the challenges that women face in these trades–things related to participation, attrition, and whatever else you’ve got for us there.

Hannah: I think under-representation is really the biggest challenge for women. You’re probably aware that construction is a heavily male-dominated industry–nationally only about 3% of skilled trade workers are women, and in Washington state it’s about 9%, so three times the national average, but still very low representation. And it’s been this way pretty much since women started entering the trades en masse in the 1970s, and this is despite the best efforts of affirmative action, anti-discrimination, priority-hiring initiatives.

And so part of what we see is that women have much lower rates of entry into apprenticeship programs, which, like I said, are the main pipeline into the skill trades for a lot of workers. It’s the same in Washington State–about 9% of apprentices are women, and about 2.5% of apprentices nationally.

And a lot of women just don’t even know that construction is an option for them; they’re not taught about it when they’re going to school. When they’re growing up they don’t get that same exposure to using their hands a lot of the time.

Traditionally, the trades, the apprenticeship programs, the unions, and just the trades environment itself, are a “straight white man’s world”. Its’ been very heavily dominated by white men, and so women don’t see themselves, and men traditionally tended to hire what were called the “FBI”–friends, brothers, and in-laws–that was one of the main entry points into the trades, and so women were excluded that way.

And then even once women are in apprenticeship programs, they have higher attrition rates compared to men. For women, the retention rate is less than 50%–it’s pretty low for a lot of workers, but for women, it’s particularly low. And what we’ve learned is that a lot of this is due to a lack of familiarity with using the tools of the trade, lack of familiarity with the culture, some culture shock when you get into it, a harder time securing on-the-job training, because of a lack of connections. And then also for a lot of women, challenges dealing with the work schedule, particularly if they’re raising children, and also just experiencing a hostile work environment. These are reasons why a lot of women are not able to complete their apprenticeship programs.

Workplace Culture, Women, and the Construction Trades

Convergence Training: OK. So, picking up on that last point, of a hostile work environment, could you tell us how an average construction workplace culture affects the women who are trying to work within that culture?

Hannah: I think it’s important to use a historical perspective when thinking about this, and to understand the power dynamics that are at play.

So like I said, construction is a heavily male-dominated environment, historically it has always been that way, and the culture has really been defined by so-called masculine values of competition and hierarchy, hazing, and toughness. These are all linked to higher rates of bullying and harassment for different forms of occupations. And so we know that traditionally, in order to stay safe in a physically dangerous environment—because in construction there is a lot of inherent physical risk based on the work—in order to stay safe, men had to bond over a shared identity, and that identify was usually their identity as men. And so they would use sexually explicit or sexist or racist jokes in order to bond with one another, which made women and people of color sort of become “others.” And this often made them appear as more acceptable targets for harassment on the job.

And this is all part of the socialization that happens when there is a majority group in power. We pick up stereotypes all the time based on our interactions with the culture that we live in, and these just became subconsciously accepted to where we have the idea that to be a construction worker is to be a man. Which is something that I think a lot of people just assume, because they’ve always seen men in those positions, even though there’s nothing inherently masculine about the skills needed to be an iron worker, or a laborer, or a carpenter. There’s a great report by Susan Moir and colleagues talking about how the trades really became masculine because this majority group of men set the rules and norms around the entry process based on their identify as men (Moir, S., Thomson, M., & Kelleher, C. M. (2011). Unfinished business: Building equality for women in the construction trades. UMass Boston, Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy).

And so what we’ve heard from women is they really do feel like “others” in the industry. A lot of the time they are even told “You are taking this job away from a man who needs it,” as if the woman doesn’t also need the work, as if she doesn’t belong. And the women talked about feeling like they needed to adopt a lot of the joking patterns of the men in order to fit in, but at the same time having to constantly police their actions and their behaviors so that they wouldn’t be seen as either sexual objects or threats to the men on the job.

We also heard from women in our study about feeling like they were under a magnifying glass, because a lot of the time they are the only woman–there’s no other women that they see on their job site–and so their work really does stand out, and they’re reluctant to draw attention to themselves. And a lot of times, that means that their work is judged based on men’s past experiences with other women. Women feeling like they have to carry the weight of all women on their shoulders, which can be really stressful. And studies have shown that in workplaces where women are in the numerical minority, like construction, that they tend to report more stress, alienation, and harassment compared to other workplaces where they might have greater representation.

Please see these online training courses on related topics: Discrimination in the Workplace; Diversity in the Workplace; Sexual Harassment Awareness; Violence in the Workplace; Stress Management at Work; and Conflict Management.

Convergence Training: I’ve got a follow-up question for you, and maybe you plan on talking about this later, but when you’re a minority like that, and maybe you don’t feel accepted, is there also a tendency to push further and work harder in order to prove yourself?

Hannah: Yes, definitely, and I’ll touch on that.

One of the things we looked at in the study is what we called overcompensation–feeling the need to really push your body past its physical comfort point to get the job done, which can result in injury. And we heard this a lot, that women, because they were seen as not capable of doing the work, felt that need to push themselves too hard.

We heard this over and over again. In the trades, you go through an apprenticeship program where you’re an apprentice, then you journey out and you’re a fully trained worker, traditionally known as a journeyman (because the language is very gendered). Journey-level women were constantly mistaken for apprentices–again, this idea that because they are women they must be new, they must not know how to do the work. And so there’s that pressure both that women would put on themselves but also based on what they were hearing, that they had to be the best, they had to work harder than everyone else, just to get noticed, just to get by. And like you said, that can have a real negative impact on their health and safety.

Specific Safety and Health Challenges Women Face in Construction Trades

Convergence Training: Yeah, you would think both physically and mentally. Well, thanks for addressing that, and I’m sorry if I sort of stepped on your toes and you had planned on bringing that up later. So, within that context, within that context, maybe you could call out some specific safety and health hazards that women face on the both physically and perhaps mentally, maybe having to do with PPE and the like.

Hannah: Yes, and since I work in public health, I think that health and safety are a great entry point for better understanding some of the barriers that women face entering and staying in the trades. It all comes down to health and safety, because if you don’t feel safe on the job you’re not going to want to stay there. And I’m glad you mentioned both mental health and physical health, because we see that as all connected. Working in a physically dangerous environment, you have to have your full mental capacity there. If you’re stressed out or distracted, you’re more at risk for getting injured.

So, previous studies mentioned the fact that a lot of women don’t have personal protective equipment, what we call PPE, that fits them properly, which puts them at direct risk of injury. PPE are things like boots, gloves, and fall harnesses. If these aren’t designed to fit women’s bodies, they’re actually going to put them at greater risk. A lot of women talked about not even using gloves because they just didn’t fit and they got in the way of what they were trying to do, and so that put them at higher risk as well.

Lack of bathrooms has come up a lot. The fact that there are rarely clean, private, accessible bathrooms with running water (which is essential if women are menstruating) on job sites. And so for women that was a huge stressor, not going to the bathroom all day, or having to run down 26 floors and use it across the yard, or even stories of getting locked in the porta potty, sort of as a prank, with men cutting out holes to look through. So there’s a lot of stress related to bathrooms.

In our focus groups, we talked to both women and men about the physical hazards of the job, the stress-related hazards, and then those risks that are specific for women. For all workers, construction is an extremely dangerous environment. You’re exposed to electrocution; slips, trips, and falls; musculoskeletal disorders; toxic chemicals; getting hit by equipment–there’s a lot of risks out there. And then there’s also for all workers a lot of stress related to the unpredictability of the work. The fact that you’re constantly working yourself out of a job, you don’t necessarily know when the next paycheck is going to come. There’s also the fast-paced environment, the fact that production is often stressed over safety, the high job demands, and hazing that can affect both men and women.

But for women, these factors are made worse, again, because of their under-representation, and the fact that the industry doesn’t recognize their needs all of the time.

So what we heard was, there wasn’t a demand to create PPE that fits women, because a lot of companies say “Well, there just aren’t enough women,” or manufacturers aren’t making it because they don’t understand women’s different body proportions.

Similarly, we heard that a lot of the training at apprenticeship programs, where women are actually learning how to work with the tools, has traditionally been based on men’s ergonomics. So for a lot of women, they have to figure out ways on their own to work safely, because they have different strengths and different body limitations. And there is variability for men too; we heard from smaller men about trouble getting the PPE to fit.

We heard too that women didn’t always receive the same hands-on training as men, or they were pushed to the less physically demanding tasks. A carpenter talked about being put on cleaning duty the entire time as opposed to actually learning the tools and the skilled trades work. And so this means women either won’t get to journey out, or they won’t know how to do the work once they are out there. And they saw this as a form of gender discrimination based on the fact that they are women.

Also, the stress from being the only woman on the job, which can have a real impact on mental health, due to social isolation. We heard too that even if there was another woman on their site, the women wouldn’t necessarily affiliate with one another. This was because they didn’t want to get “marked” based on being seen working with another woman if that woman wasn’t liked by the rest of the crew. And so there’s a real lack of social support.

And then for women, a lot of these stressors were made worse because they had a fear of reporting. So if the PPE didn’t fit, if there wasn’t a bathroom, if they were being harassed, participants felt like they couldn’t raise these complaints to their supervisors, because they said “We’re just going to get fired, women are always the first to get fired, and they don’t want us there anyway.” Or they were concerned about being marked. You didn’t want to be that woman who complained, because then nobody would want to work with you. And in an industry that really relies on trust, you want to try to get along as well as you can with your coworkers.

With our survey, we were able to study how many women are talking about these themes, what’s the association between the stressors and the different health and safety outcomes. We found that gender was a significant predictor of reporting high-stress and injuries at work; women were significantly more likely than men to report both on the job. Women were also significantly more likely than men to report PPE not fitting properly, 31% of women compared to 9% of men. More than 1/3 of the women we surveyed reported high levels of isolation, bullying, and overcompensation—physically pushing your body too hard—so this is something that a lot of women are thinking about. About half of women also reported having poor work/life balance, and childcare kept coming up as one of the main barriers for women being able to stay in the trades. The fact that even if they were working full-time, if they had a partner also working full-time, it was seen as the woman’s duty to take care of the kid. If their kid was sick they would still get that call, and a lot of times coworkers and their supervisors would not support them or would even threaten to lay them off for missing work.

We looked at risk of injury and stress as the main outcomes in the survey, and we found that for women with poor work/life balance, they had almost an 8 times higher risk of reporting high stress than women with good work/life balance. Women who reported low social support from their coworkers and their supervisors had a four-times higher risk of stress compared to women with high support. And then with that physical over-compensation piece, pushing their bodies too hard often due to their need to prove themselves, it increased their risk of injury by four times. So this is important, and we are learning that there are significant impacts on women’s health and safety based on being under-represented and being in a hostile environment.

Harassment and Gender Discrimination on the Job

Convergence Training: Wow. yeah, that is impressive. Also impressive, you knocked that one out of the park. As with all the questions, you clearly know this stuff inside-out and backwards, it’s impressive, and thank you for that.

One thing that caught my attention, you know, I’ve been thinking about the PPE issue and how PPE isn’t designed for women, and I’ve been curious, wondering what do they do, and it didn’t occur to me that even if a woman does run it up the flagpole and ask for different PPE, that it may not exist because nobody’s making it, it’s not profitable, almost like an orphan drug or something. But your point was interesting as well, and I hadn’t thought about this although it makes sense–the ergonomic issue. These tools, this equipment, aren’t made for a typically woman body, so the workplace becomes riskier for a woman.

OK, so how are on-the-job harassment and gender discrimination wrapped up in all of this?

Hannah: So it’s right in there with health and safety. Again, it’s the idea of working in a male-dominated environment, where women are seen as others and can become more acceptable targets for harassment.

There have been studies that were conducted in the 1980s and late 1990s on tradeswomen’s health and safety experiences, and a lot of them showed incredibly high rates of women reporting sexual harassment (Goldenhar, L. M., Swanson, N. G., Hurrell Jr, J. J., Ruder, A., & Deddens, J. (1998); see also this OSHA article). Stressors and adverse outcomes for female construction workers. Journal of occupational health psychology, 3(1), 19.). I think one study showed more than 80% of women reported harassment. And there’s a whole range of these experiences, anything from hearing sexual jokes on the job site, to being groped, to being threatened, to actually being assaulted, which can have a real impact on health and safety as well. And we know that there’s a positive association between experiencing discrimination and harassment and having negative psychological and physical health outcomes.

The women in our study did note that the culture seemed to be improving. We talked to women in our focus groups who had retired from the industry after 30-40 years, and they said that while there’s less overt harassment now, it still exists, it’s just become a lot more subtle. Similar to micro-aggressions: things that are harder to identify, and the women often second-guess themselves. Even if they don’t actually know if someone is harassing them it’s still affecting their psychological well-being. Studies have shown that more subtle forms of harassment, like micro-aggressions, have as strong an effect on mental health as more overt forms of harassment, so this is still a serious issue.

In our study, from SHEWT, we learned that women were significantly more likely than men to experience gender discrimination (about 43% of women) and bullying (about 40% of women). Women who reported gender discrimination and bullying had more than double the risk of reporting an injury at work and reporting high stress than those who did not experience these stressors. And we know, too, that a lot of this may be related. If you’re being bullied, there’s social isolation, which can put you at risk of being injured on the job if you don’t trust your coworkers. And again, with physical over-compensation, there’s a direct link with injury if you’re pushing your body too hard.

And I think one of the important things to think about when talking about discrimination and harassment is to understand the multiple identities that people have. We’re talking about gender discrimination for women, but if it’s a woman of color, she may also be experiencing racial discrimination on top of that, which can just magnify the stress that’s she’s experiencing and the risk for injuries. Same thing with LGBTQ-identified folks. There’s a real lack of research on the more under-represented members of the trades, and so it tends to be when we’re talking about women, it often is the experience of white, cis-gendered women. But for women of color and people of sexual and gender minorities, their negative treatment can be exacerbated, so I think that’s important to account for when you’re talking about on-the-job harassment.

Resources to Help Women Enter & Stay in the Construction Trades

Convergence Training: Sure, alright, thank you. So, OK, for these women who are in the trades, or who want to move into the trades, can you recommend some resources for them for help getting into the trades and for help with the kind of issues you’re talking about?

Hannah: Yeah, I know, I sort of made it seem very negative. But there are a lot of benefits for women working in the trades.

I think one of the hardest things for women is just learning about the trades. What we heard from a lot of women in our study is this was the second or even third career for them, because they didn’t know about the trades when they were younger. And so I think getting better recruitment for women in the trades is really important, to let them know this is a great career for a certain type of person.

Pre-apprenticeship programs are a great resource. These are training programs that give women and men the beginner trade skills; they orient you to the trades culture, they teach you about the different types of trades, they get you up to date with all the pre-reqs you need, like math skills, and so they can be a really great way to learn about the trades. In Washington State, we have a program called ANEW (Apprenticeship in Non-Traditional Employment for Women), which is a wonderful program that has graduated so many women into apprenticeship programs, where they’re able to succeed.

There’s also programs working on targeting younger women, and girls, to get them interested in doing trade skills and just working with their hands. There’s a summer camp in Portland, Oregon called Girls Build—that’s actually being piloted in Washington right now too—that works with elementary and middle-school aged girls, teaching them skills that they can thin

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