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Constructing Change: How Women Are Redefining Safety and Inclusivity in Construction

The construction industry has faced labor shortages over the last decade, with a decline in younger adults entering the industry. To combat this shortage, construction businesses and labor groups have tried to increase the pool of skilled workers and focus on attracting women to the industry. Since 2014, there has been a steady increase in the number of women entering the construction trades and the number of women-owned construction businesses.

In 2023, U.S. statistics show that the construction industry employs 10,755,099 people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 14 percent of the 1.5 million construction workers were women. With nearly 1 in 4 construction workers older than 55 and retiring combined with a continued shortage of labor, the number of women in the field will only continue to increase.

Despite gradual increases in participation and visibility, the current state of women in the construction industry reflects a mix of progress and persistent challenges. Women still face significant barriers that affect their safety, career advancement and daily work experiences.

Common Challenges Women Face in Construction

  • Safety concerns. One of the primary challenges is the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for women, leading to safety risks. Beyond PPE, women also report a lack of adequate training on equipment operations and safety practices.
  • Gender bias and harassment. Women often encounter gender bias and discrimination, ranging from doubts about their capabilities to outright harassment. This environment can deter women from entering the field or cause them to leave the industry.
  • Lack of representation. The low percentage of women in construction means there are few role models and mentors for aspiring female professionals. This lack of representation can also contribute to a sense of isolation and hinder women’s career advancement.
  • Work-life balance. The demanding schedules and the physical nature of construction work can pose challenges for work-life balance, particularly for women who may also shoulder a disproportionate share of household work.
  • Workplace culture. Culture on and off the field poses a more significant challenge than even the physical dangers of construction. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 41 percent of women in construction experienced harassment over a year. This harassment can manifest in various ways, including sexual harassment or the exclusion and marginalization of female workers. Moreover, many women hesitate to report such behavior, fearing they will be branded as troublemakers.

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid attributes the lack of a supportive work environment as particularly detrimental to female workers, who may already face challenges such as stereotypical biases, hazing or harassment due to their minority status on the job site. Consider the scenario, she writes, where a young female apprentice is new to a job site and crew, and she is asked to use a scaffold tower and fall protection harness for her work. 

Both tasks require specific training, but in a culture where she is not encouraged to ask questions or is paired with an experienced employee, she might risk her safety to avoid appearing unwilling or burdensome. A proactive approach by a foreman or superintendent to include new employees in discussions and provide meaningful orientations can significantly enhance the crew’s focus on work and their ability to perform tasks safely.

The Future Outlook and Solutions

As the construction industry evolves, so does the approach to overcoming the challenges faced by women. Innovative solutions, technological advancements and industry-wide collaboration are key to creating a safer and more inclusive environment.

Strategic Focus Areas for Industry Improvement

To cultivate a more inclusive and supportive environment for women, a comprehensive approach involving industry advocacy groups, construction businesses and the women themselves is essential.

  • Technological integration. Leveraging technology such as wearable devices can enhance safety on construction sites. These devices can monitor the health and safety of workers in real time, sending alerts for hazardous conditions or when physical exertion exceeds safe limits. Additionally, apps can provide a platform for anonymously reporting safety concerns or incidents of harassment, encouraging more women to speak up without fear of retaliation.
  • Industry collaboration. Partnerships between construction firms, technology companies and educational institutions can lead to the development of more ergonomic tools and machinery suited for women. Collaborative efforts can also establish scholarships and apprenticeship programs aimed at women, providing them with the education and training necessary to thrive in the construction industry.
  • Industry advocacy and educational groups. Organizations like the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), and United Contractors can spearhead initiatives to promote safety and inclusivity. This includes developing specialized training programs for women, setting safety standards for equipment and PPE, and fostering inclusive workplace cultures.
  • Construction businesses. Employers play a crucial role in enhancing workplace culture and safety. Actions include implementing comprehensive safety training that addresses women’s specific needs, promoting a respectful workplace culture to actively address and prevent harassment, and adapting construction sites to accommodate women — including providing appropriate hygiene facilities and considering physical task requirements.
  • Women in construction. Women’s empowerment and active participation are vital. Forming safety-focused groups within companies can help address key safety issues and improvements. Additionally, engaging with women-in-construction advocacy groups and practicing self-advocacy are crucial steps for women to influence industry-wide changes.
  • Community and support networks. Building a community of support for women in construction is vital. Mentorship programs, networking events and online forums can connect women across the industry, offering them a platform to share experiences, advice and support. These networks not only help women navigate the challenges of the industry but also empower them to advocate for change.

The Role of Women’s Safety Advocacy Group in Construction

A pivotal initiative is the establishment of the Women’s Safety Advocacy Group in Construction. This group can be a transformative force within the industry, enhancing women’s safety and well-being, contributing to a cultural shift towards greater inclusivity and respect. Key activities of the Women’s Safety Advocacy Group in Construction can include developing safety education and training tailored to women, advocating for policy changes and industry standards that address women’s safety needs, and establishing support and mentorship programs.

Looking to the future, the construction industry must continue to adapt and innovate to attract and retain women. By addressing the unique challenges they face, providing opportunities for growth and advancement, and fostering a culture of inclusivity and respect, the industry can not only solve its labor shortage but also become a more diverse and dynamic field. Together, these efforts will build a foundation for a more inclusive, equitable, and safe construction industry for everyone.

Source: OHS Online

Image: Freepik

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