Making sure the shoe – and hard hat – fits

Health and safety concerns differ for women in non-traditional workplaces
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/10/2011

Jan Chappel can think of a few instances where women working in non-traditional, male-dominated workplaces experienced trials. There was the woman who had trouble properly fitting a full-face mask to her narrow face. Or the construction worker forced to visit a Tim Horton’s down the street to use the women’s washroom.

One would hope a good employer would recognize the diversity of its workforce and act accordingly, says Chappel, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

“They should be recognizing that everybody has different needs and it’s not necessarily gender-based.”

In non-traditional industry sectors, including agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, mining and oil and gas extraction, utilities, construction, manufacturing and transportation and warehousing, women’s participation has historically been close to 30 per cent, found a 2010 report from the Construction Sector Council in Ottawa. But the recognition women need a different approach when it comes to workplace health and safety issues has been a long time coming.

Women have different bodies with different requirements, says Tammy Evans, president of the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC) in Toronto. That can mean equipment such as tool belts, harnesses, shirts and jackets don’t fit properly and need a lot of accommodation. Even women’s feet are shaped differently, so work boots must be adapted.

“I’ve been in the industry since the early ‘80s and never heard anything back then about women’s boots.”

But with growing awareness among employers and employees, improved legislation and policies and newer generations entering the workforce, everything is changing and women are becoming more accepted in these non-traditional roles, says Evans.

So issues such as change rooms, bathrooms or inappropriate pictures of women in trailers are “pretty much” gone while companies such as Moxie Trades, Tomboy Tools and Mark’s Work Wearhouse are meeting the demand for women’s gear.

“It’s getting better. As awareness is increasing, accommodation is also increasing.”

If an employer is interested in hiring more women, it should look at processes, ergonomics and how things are set up and make sure women have the proper tools, equipment, bathrooms and work stations, depending on the situation, says Jen Beeman, co-ordinator of the employment equity portfolio at theConseilD’intervention PourL’access Des Femmes Au Travail (CIAFT) in Montreal, which focuses on women’s rights in the labour market.

“It’s pretty amazing the extent to which these things will be overlooked. You can’t do a proper job, anybody, unless you have the proper equipment.”

Beeman recalls a female plumber who was always innovating with her tools to make them easier for her to use. Since women don’t have the same upper body strength as men, she modified the keys used to tighten the fittings of pipes and while the men on the site teased her for a couple of weeks, they eventually wanted to try her tools.

“Because women have to think outside the box because nothing has been adapted for them, often they’re really interested in innovation. So it can make for quite a different workplace,” says Beeman.

Women need to have more freedom to try things and discuss what they might find useful, says Karen Messing, a researcher and retired professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Often by conducting a gender-sensitive analysis, employers will find solutions that are helpful to men too, she says, citing a case in Britain where female letter carriers completely redesigned their carrying packs and, consequently, the levels of backache for men went way down.

“Often women just need the time and space to… evolve their own ways of doing their own thing without being told they’re doing it wrong all the time, just because they’re doing it differently.”

Training programs also need to be re-evaluated. For example, one program taught people how to carry a ladder properly (by grabbing the third rung and putting it on their shoulders) but this did not work for shorter people and women were bumping the ladder into the ground.

“When you welcome women into new workplaces, you’re dealing with a population that’s really physically quite different from the average male,” says Messing.

The need for different or modified equipment and tools might be supported by management but a common obstacle is the other employees, says Beeman. They may perceive the changes as a lessening of prestige or the value of a “macho” job so employers have to be ready to take that on with workers. Harassment is also a health and safety issue and that too is the employer’s responsibility, she says.

Women can also be reticent, depending on how they see issues being dealt with, to draw any attention to themselves. That’s where a union can really help them establish themselves by starting up discussions around issues such as health and safety, says Beeman.

“For health and safety to be important, you have to have decent workplace relations, you can’t have harassment, you can’t have people doing stupid stunts, you need people using the proper tools for the proper jobs. You’re not going to have people hauling 50- or 100-pound bags not using the proper equipment because it’s more macho and that’s the way it’s always been done.”

Messing remembers one group of women who were determined to use the tool belts used by men, but they soon became too heavy and the women were reluctant to ask for an adjustment that would involve a strap going across their chests.

“There is pressure on women to be just exactly like one of the guys,” she says. “You really have to give a little bit of attention to adapting the way things are done.”

There are always going to be tensions, on every job site, but each is going to be a bit different, says Evans, who is also a lawyer at BlaneyMcMurtry in Toronto. So it’s important women show their skills and do the work, but not be afraid of speaking out, if needed.

“When it comes to safety issues, it’s even more important for women to speak out,” she says. “Fear should not stop anybody from making a positive change, particularly women in non-traditional roles — that’s how we effect change, we face those fears. A lot of fear is borne from lack of knowledge so the more we educate and bring awareness to the industry to all the non-traditional roles, the faster we can make changes.”

Women also need to be able to speak to each other because they may be confronting the same issues around health and safety, says Messing. However, there can be pressure for women to prove themselves, so they may end up avoiding each other despite the benefits.

“This is even more true in these very heavily male environments, it may be difficult for the women to talk to each other and there’s often discourse that they don’t need to — ‘They’re just like the guys.’ And in some ways that’s true and in other ways that’s not true.”

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