November 2, 2016
Construction workers experience many health and safety concerns including falls, being struck by/against machinery, musculoskeletal disorders, and chronic health hazards from contaminants. Female workers face additional gender-specific hazards such as inadequate physical protection, unsanitary facilities, and stress from discrimination and harassment. As opportunities for women in the trades continue to grow in the Pacific Northwest, better understanding of tradeswomen’s unique exposure to workplace hazards is needed.
Northwest Center ERC Faculty Member Noah Seixas, PhD, and DEOHS Staff Member Hannah Curtis, MPH have embarked on a project designed to identify the primary work-related health and safety risks to tradeswomen, and inform intervention strategies to address this population’s health and safety challenges.
The Safety and Health Empowerment for Women in Trades (SHEWT) project is a two-part collaborative project with the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center and Washington Women in Trades. Funding and support for SHEWT is provided by the State of Washington, Department of Labor and Industries, Safety and Health Investment Projects.
Phase I (2014-2016) used focus groups and a survey to investigate the nature, range, and extent of health and safety risks affecting women in the construction industry in WA State. Building off the research findings, phase II (2016-2018) will address tradeswomen’s workplace psychosocial stressors through the development, implementation, and evaluation of a pilot mentoring program. This program will train journey-level women and men to support female apprentices as they navigate construction work and safety cultures.
Hannah and Noah’s research has guided by several key questions regarding the safety and health of women in trades:
- What are the health and safety exposures related to workplace stress, injury risk, and psychosocial factors experienced by women working in the construction trades?
- How are exposures different between tradeswomen and tradesmen?
- What support systems exist to address women’s work-related risks and how could they be improved?
- What impact would a mentoring program have on health and safety communication and compliance for female apprentices?
From the phase I focus groups conducted with 19 tradeswomen and 6 tradesmen, researchers learned that key workplace stressors affecting tradeswomen are:
- Dangerous work environment
- Physical limitations
- Inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Physical overcompensation due to a need to constantly prove themselves
- Gender discrimination and unequal training
- Sexual harassment
- Fear of layoff for reporting concerns
- Poor work-life balance
- Lack of support
Survey analysis is ongoing but preliminary results from 198 tradeswomen and 93 tradesmen, representing a wide variety of trade professions and career levels around WA State, revealed:
- Women scored significantly higher than men on the perceived stress scale
- Women were more likely to report PPE not fitting properly, especially for coveralls and full harnesses
- 40% of women felt discriminated against at work because of their gender
- More than half of the surveyed women reported pushing themselves past their physical comfort at least half of the time to get the job done
Solutions suggested by survey participants included improved education and training; mentoring; and increasing women’s representation in leadership roles.
Upon completion of phase I, Research Coordinator Hannah Curtis said,
“It is disheartening, but not altogether surprising, to learn that the physical and psychosocial stressors affecting tradeswomen at work have not changed much in the past three decades. Women continue to represent a small minority (2.7%) of skilled trades workers, which contributes to their health and safety needs not being met. Talking with tradeswomen opened my eyes to the hazards of working in a hostile, male-dominated culture, but it also revealed the strength of women who have real pride in their work and are breaking down employment barriers.”
The SHEWT project is now in phase II through 2018. During phase II Noah, Hannah, and other project contributors aim to assess the effectiveness of a mentor program to combat some of the workplace risks and stressors tradeswomen have reported.
The Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center “Heartbeat of Health and Safety Podcast” program recently interview Hannah and other project contributors about the SHEWT project, and the risks women in trades are facing. Listen to the podcast episode here.
To learn more about SHEWT, visit the project website.