Tradeswomen Face Discrimination, Increased Safety Risks

Womensenews.org  recently published an expose on the plight of women in construction trades, which includes such occupations as carpenter, electrician, painter, plumber, and equipment operator. The piece revealed that due to discrimination from multiple sources, tradeswomen face increased safety risks.

One obvious and dangerous source of bias against women is simply how tools are manufactured. Professional-grade work tools, even ones that are advertized as being ergonomically safe, are built to fit the average man’s hand size, not the average woman’s. Elizabeth Fox, a former electrician who studied with chiropractors, physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons at The National Labor College in Maryland, said that “tools that don’t fit properly can trigger pressure points, damage blood vessels and lead to injury.” Indeed, Mary Watters, director of communication for the Center for Construction Research and Training told Womensenews.org: “Tools just don’t fit women’s bodies. Even their gloves don’t fit. It raises the risk that tools can slip, and to compensate for tools and gloves not fitting, women have to apply more pressure than do men. Repeating motions day in and day out can cause severe injury.”

Besides tools, women also have to deal with workplaces and other pieces of equipment that are not set up to accommodate them. The number one cause of worksite fatalities is falling from a height, but standard harnesses are not made for women and cut them at their breasts. Similarly, though federal sanitations regulations require that separate toilet facilities are provided for each gender,  Laura Boatman, project coordinator for the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a  California statewide labor organization, said that women’s facilities are often missing from worksites or located at a much less convenient place than men’s. The consequence of this is that “female workers sometimes report having to jog 20 minutes to reach a facility. [Project manager of the Equality Works program at Legal Momentum Francine] Jacobson added that a lack of or inadequate facilities cause frequent bladder infections in women.”

In addition to equipment and worksites that are not built for them, tradeswomen also face blatant discrimination by their employers and coworkers, which can lead to both emotional and physical harm. The Equal Rights Advocates Tradeswomen Advocacy Project reports that women in construction trades face discrimination at four levels: “women are denied access to trades apprenticeship programs, union skip over female employees when sending workers to jobs, many employers simply do not hire women,” and “employers engage in and/or tolerate discriminatory behavior.” Some “discriminatory behavior” includes sexual harassment and hazing. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has statues against sexual harassment, Francine A. Moccio, author of the 2009 book Live Wire: Women and Brotherhood in the Electrical Industry told Womensenews.org that enforcement of these statues has weakened over time. Moccio also shared personal stories of tradeswomen who have endured cruel, dangerous hazing by their coworkers. She said she has “heard many, many stories…of men setting women up to get hurt, letting them get electrocuted, urinating on their toolboxes.” Additionally, because women have less on-the-job training due to contractors’ discriminatory hiring practices, Boatman says, “Women are given tasks that they aren’t trained to do and often will be assigned tasks that two men will handle . . . Because they want to prove themselves, they will do it and be injured.”

The discrimination that tradeswomen face at work puts them at an increased risk of being harmed, both physically and emotionally. To learn more about the plight of tradeswomen, you can read the entire Womensenews.org expose here.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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