IT WAS A CRY FOR HELP IN CYBERSPACE: “Anyone know where I can find a pair of safety glasses that will fit me?! I am so tired of mine slipping down while my hands are too busy to push them back up!”
A volley followed, with tradeswomen throughout the country responding with suggestions for certain brands of protective eyewear, Web sites, and, often, additional questions about where to find small work boots, gloves, and safety harnesses. Women in construction had come together on an Internet message board to find the safety equipment they needed—equipment that wasn't being provided by their employers at their jobsites.
That void led Terri Piasecki to trade in her career as a safety manager for one as an intermediary for tradeswomen, manufacturers, and employers, educating them about the need to provide more than “one size fits all” clothing and equipment and selling the alternatives on her Web site, charmandhammer.com.
“It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman, you will still be exposed to the same hazards, but the protective side is different,” says Piasecki, who also serves as chair of the National Association of Women in Construction's (NAWIC) health and safety committee.
Recalling an employer who sought her help to find a safety harness to fit his 5-foot, 1-inch female employee—who'd been using a men's large harness—Piasecki says, “That's one employer who would go out of their way. If you have 50 employees and you have one who needs something different, it's very difficult for people to go out of their way.”
One woman out of 50 workers isn't much of an exaggeration. Though it's difficult to pinpoint the share of construction workers women constitute, it's often estimated at less than 10 percent. As described by an OSHA workgroup in 1999, this statistic is part of a circular problem: Safety and health problems for women in construction create barriers to working in the field, but with few women on job-sites, safety and health concerns can persist. In many cases, tradeswomen are on their own to find protective clothing and equipment that fits, keeping manufacturers in the dark as to the demand that could lead to better—and more readily available—solutions.
ON THEIR OWN “We don't think you can be race, color, or gender blind and able to provide equity for everyone,” says Lauren Sugarman, president of Chicago Women in Trades, an industry workgroup designed to increase the number of women in nontraditional jobs. The industry may fail to uncover dangerous situations if it doesn't consider work-place safety through a gender lens, she says.
Sugarman participated in OSHA's Health and Safety of Women in Construction (HASWIC) workgroup in 1999, which presented the agency with a comprehensive study of the health and safety perils facing women on construction sites. Citing research that included a survey of tradeswomen by Sugarman's organization and two studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), protective clothing and equipment in the wrong sizes and poor on-the-job training adversely affected women's ability to do their jobs safely, HASWIC reported.
The group's report included some eye-opening figures. In the second NIOSH study, 46 percent of women responded that they could not easily find work shoes that fit; 41 percent said they could not find work gloves.
Although HASWIC included dozens of recommendations with its report, more-recent reports continue to echo the concerns the group highlighted six years ago. As part of her research for a chapter on women's health and safety for Construction Safety Management and Engineering, a book published by the American Society of Safety Engineers, safety and industrial hygiene manager Carol Schmeidler distributed a survey through NAWIC to almost 200 women working in construction. While 95 percent responded that they were trained to do their jobs safely, 56 percent had become ill or been injured on the job. What's more, 32 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the fit and function of safety equipment.