By: Thomas H. Welby Geoffrey S. Pope Published: May 2018

Protecting Female Construction Personnel from Sexual Harassment and Jobsite Injury

Approximately 800,000 women are employed in the U.S. construction industry.  About 200,000 of them wear hard hats, and work (mostly) as laborers and helpers, painters, carpenters, repair workers, electricians, drywall installers, truck drivers, HVAC mechanics, plumbers, and flaggers.  In addition, about 600,000 women work in administrative and office positions in construction businesses.

We will discuss below several nuts-and-bolts health and safety issues that affect, in particular, women working in the trades.  There are serious issues, however, of the mistreatment of women in the industry, which occur both on the jobsite (where some men are enraged by the sight of a woman wearing a hard hat) to the office (the workplace, generally, of men who feel entitled to indulge in sexual harassment, or sexual assault). 

While women in construction do not get as much attention as Hollywood actresses, construction accounts for more jobs, and is a larger component of the U.S. economy, than making movies.  You will, we hope, be horrified to learn that sexual harassment is every bit as bad a problem in construction, as it is in the movie industry.

Sexual harassment in construction is pervasive.  It ranges from being stared at or seeing “pinups” of unclothed women in the job trailer, to unwanted sexual remarks, lewd acts, inappropriate touching, and outright sexual assault.  A USA Today analysis of EEOC and Bureau of Labor Statistics data suggested that construction is the #2 industry in the country (behind mining) for the number of reported incidents of sexual harassment reported per thousand employees.  This, obviously, is unacceptable.

Even where the offensive behavior does not include fondling and assault, or sex as an express condition of employment, women in construction, as in most traditionally-male occupations, are frequently the targets of belittling remarks, and other so-called “microagressions.”  Often, they will be given “friendly advice” that career prospects will be enhanced by being receptive to sexual advances, or tolerating degrees of sexual misbehavior.

While obviously sexual harassment is objectionable on additional grounds, it would be a mistake to discount its impact on safety.  While having to see sexy photos in the trailer isn’t as overtly dangerous, obviously, as working aloft without fall protection, construction safety depends largely on mentoring, mutual trust, and workers looking out for one another and reporting unsafe conditions.  If women don’t get the same training and mentoring — whether as payback for not going along with sexual misconduct, or due to male resentment provoked merely by their presence in the trades — that’s a safety issue.  If women on your jobsite are more reluctant than men to report safety violations for fear of retaliation, that also affects safety, and is not merely a result of boys being boys. (We acknowledge, in passing, that fewer than 100% of the culprits in incidents of sexual harassment and assault are heterosexual men, and not every victim is female).

For some years, construction-industry organizations and employers have worked to increase the numbers of women working in the construction trades, as well as in management.  The results of these efforts have been valuable, but, on the whole, somewhat disappointing.  We suggest it will probably be a condition of achieving higher levels of success in recruiting women that the industry first acknowledge, and then take an aggressive leadership stance, in stemming sexual harassment.

The overall culture, clearly, is changing, Women, including flight attendants, restaurant servers, the armed forces, and the entertainment industry, are pushing back against being fondled, if not raped, and persistent belittlement as parts of the job description.  All indications are that, going forward, companies (and managers) who keep their heads in the proverbial sand on this issue are going to pay a price for doing so.

Turning to some of the nuts-and-bolts safety matters, we will note, first, that the primary causes of death for women in construction are “struck-by” incidents (think flaggers struck by vehicles) and other transportation accidents, homicide, and falls.

A widespread problem for women is the lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) in the smaller sizes generally needed to fit women.  The “protective” can vanish from “PPE,” if the respirator, protective clothing, etc. is too large, or does not fit properly.  A respirator that doesn’t fit is virtually useless.  Safety footwear that is too large can cause trips and falls.  Too-large clothing items can get snagged in equipment, resulting in serious injury.  PPE items often found to be too large for female users include, but are not limited to, respirators, fall-protection harnesses, safety shoes, gloves, coveralls, hard hats, and safety goggles.

Procuring PPE items in sizes that will fit smaller women will often require extra effort.  Some items are not regularly stocked by distributors, and others may not be widely manufactured in the United States (where people tend to be on the large side).  One resource is the International Safety Equipment Association, which lists companies and suppliers offering PPE, sized and designed for women.

Women suffer higher rates of sprains/strains and nerve conditions of the wrist and forearm than men.  The cause of this is not fully-established, but it may be a product of women, typically having less upper-body strength than men, being more commonly being assigned repetitive tasks leading to sprains/strains and nerve conditions.  Where women are expected to keep pace with their male counterparts in lifting heavy objects, back injuries are common, as well.

Hand tools are also designed in most instances for the average-sized male.  Women, typically, have slightly shorter hands and lesser grip strength than men.  Wrenches and other hand tools may be sold as “one-size-fits-all” but, actually, with many varieties of small tools, one size doesn’t fit all.  Many hand tools need to be made available in sizes that will fit women (and smaller men).

Efforts should be made to fight the perception (and such basis as it has in reality) that, since women are typically less senior in their trades in their male colleagues, they may be putting their jobs in jeopardy, if they raise concerns about substandard safety conditions (or sexual harassment).  This perception is probably even more acute when hazards complained of affect women more than men.

Two such hazards are reproductive hazards, and access to sanitary facilities.  More research is needed on potential reproductive hazards to both sexes from conditions on construction sites (including both impairment to the ability to get pregnant, and harmful effects on fetuses).  Polychlorinated biphenyls and hypothermia are two known hazards.  Ionizing radiation, to which hazardous waste workers may be exposed, is a third.  Agents such as lead, solvents, and pesticides have been identified as adversely affecting sperm development in men.

Prolonged standing has been linked to premature births, and strenuous activities, such as lifting and climbing, can be hazardous during the latter stages of pregnancy.  We think it qualifies as a “reproductive hazard,” too, that few construction employers offer pregnancy, family and medical leave to their employees.

A further hazard that affects women in particular is a lack of access to clean, private sanitary facilities on construction sites.  According to one study, 80% of women construction workers complained of facilities with filthy toilets, no toilets, or toilets in poorly-lit areas, or at an unreasonable distance from the work area.  Many toilets cannot be locked, and if located in poorly-lit areas, pose a special threat to women working at night.  Many women report taking measures to minimize having to use inadequate, dirty and unlocked unisex toilets such as holding their urine, and drinking less water while working, which can lead to heat stress, and kidney and bladder infections.

As to both sexual harassment and more mundane issues where women’s health and safety are at risk, all construction employers have both legal and ethical obligations.  The industry (particularly on the issue of sexual harassment) has some catching up to do.  That starts, we think, with the issues being acknowledged and discussed.

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