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September 04, 2013
OSHA focuses on female construction workers
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

Many people think of construction as a typically male occupation. But did you know that as of 2010, there are about 800,000 women working in the construction industry? That amounts to approximately 9 percent of the industry workforce.

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While the hazards involved in construction work are well known, female construction workers face unique challenges. To increase awareness of these issues, OSHA has signed an alliance with the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). The alliance, which lasts 2 years, will develop targeted training resources and other informational materials to help construction employers ensure the safety of their female employees.

The materials will focus primarily on three issues:

Sanitation. Many construction sites use temporary restrooms, which are often not well maintained. As a result, women may avoid using these facilities and drinking water on the job. This can lead to heat stress and other health problems, including bladder and kidney infections.

OSHA recommends the following solutions:

  • Provide separate bathrooms for male and female workers.
  • Make sure hand sanitizer is available.
  • Make sure sanitary facilities are cleaned regularly.
  • If work is performed at night, bathroom facilities should be located in well-lit areas.

Poorly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE). Wearing PPE is essential for safety in most construction environments. However, women often have difficulty finding PPE that fits them properly due to their usually smaller size and different body proportions.

For example, compared to men, women typically have shorter and narrower feet, narrower shoulders, wider hips, smaller hands, and a smaller head and face circumference. All of these differences affect the comfort and fit of PPE, and simply scaling PPE designed for men down in size often doesn’t solve the problem.

PPE that doesn’t fit properly does not perform effectively, leaving female workers exposed to the hazards the PPE is designed to protect against. And if PPE is uncomfortable or poorly fitting, women may avoid wearing it altogether. Equipment marketed as “one-size-fits-all” is often particularly problematic.

OSHA recommends the following steps to make sure PPE protects female employees effectively:

  • Purchase PPE in a wide range of sizes, including those suitable for women.
  • Maintain a directory of PPE manufacturers and suppliers and the sizes they offer. The International Safety Equipment Association (ISAE) provides a list of companies and suppliers that offer female-specific PPE at http://tinyurl.com/q82lxpm.
  • Give female employees the chance to test PPE before use to make sure it fits properly, protects against hazards, and will not interfere with job functions.

Musculoskeletal hazards. Like PPE, tools are often designed to be used by average-sized men. Because women typically have less upper body strength, the extra force required to operate certain tools or perform certain tasks, such as lifting, may put them at increased risk for ergonomic injuries.

Possible solutions include the following:

  • Determine whether alternative methods for performing certain strength-intensive tasks are feasible, and communicate these methods to all employees during training.
  • Train all workers on proper lifting and bending methods.
  • When possible, purchase equipment and tools designed with ergonomic considerations in mind. If female (or male) workers complain that tools are difficult and/or painful to use, check to see if an ergonomically designed alternative is available.

OSHA has additional information about women in construction on a webpage created specifically for the alliance. Check it out at https://www.osha.gov/doc/topics/women/index.html.

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