Ask the Expert

Ask the Expert: Women in Safety

In our latest installment of Ask the Expert, we reached out to Christina Roll, MS, CIH, CSP, who is the elected volunteer leader of the Women In Safety Excellence group at the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), and an active member of the Women in Industrial Hygiene committee at the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). We asked her a series of questions regarding women’s issues in the field of environmental, health, and safety (EHS). Here’s what she had to say.

women in safety

Q: What are some EHS areas in which men and women aren’t being treated equally in the workplace?

Unfortunately, a lot. There are a lot of research articles and surveys out there that show unequal treatment between men and women. Salary is a big one. A salary survey by National Safety Council shows a $20,000 difference in salaries with men making more. There is also the fact that biases against women exist at all levels of organizations which impact our career progression and opportunities. The “Gender Initiative” within the Harvard Business School has conducted extensive research studies on this and have found biases in hiring and promotions where women simply aren’t being considered because it’s assumed they wouldn’t want the challenge, or their family commitments would keep them from succeeding. That may sound like a company-level item, but if EHS leaders are hiring team members, they have a voice and a part to play. Then there are things like the lack of resources for women (i.e., sponsors and role models, proper-fitting PPE) that can put them at a disadvantage. I admit, and want to be clear, that a huge amount of work has been done for to address these issues over the past several years, but evidence exists that we still have a long way to go.

Q: What are some solutions for the lack of properly fitting PPE for women at work?

We need to start with the understanding that PPE solutions already exist. Many companies out there that are making PPE in sizes and designs specifically for women. Boots, FR clothing, fall protection, gloves: it all exists. There are even lines of maternity-size PPE available. Could there be more? Yes, and the ASSP Women In Safety Excellence (WISE) group is a big proponent of it and we are constantly talking with vendors to encourage more be made available. The Women in Industrial Hygiene (WIH) committee of AIHA is also raising awareness with a “Personal Protective Equipment and Clothing Fashion Show” that will be part of their annual PDC in May. Having a lack of PPE for women becomes an issue for companies because they either don’t know it exists, aren’t willing to look for it, or aren’t willing to pay for it. That may be harsh, but I believe it’s the truth. The ultimate solution is for companies to realize that women-specific PPE is not just a necessity but a requirement for them to have, identify their specific needs, and then dedicate the financial and other resources needed to obtain them.

Q: What can EHS managers do to decrease workplace violence?

The COVID pandemic has had a lot of good come out of it for today’s workplace. I feel one of the biggest is bringing Total Worker Health to the forefront as a significant and important aspect of EHS programs. Mental health is a key component, and can include a lot of things including stress, fatigue, anxiety, and lack of self-care. When our employees are pushed to perform their jobs when their mental state isn’t considered, accidents can occur, and workplace violence issues can arise. EHS managers have to find resources they can use and implement at their locations to help employees manage their mental health in a way that employees feel safe from retribution.

Another way that workplace violence can be addressed is to have a culture where employees know they can talk with their managers, HR, and even Safety about problems or concerns they have about potential situations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fourth largest number of fatalities in 2020 was due to violence and other injuries by persons or animals. Fifty-six percent of those fatalities were from intentional injuries by another person (homicides). Data also shows that women are more likely to be victims of homicides: 17% of all fatalities where homicide was the cause were women, while only 7% were men. Over the past several years, we’re heard multiple news stories or read articles where individuals from outside a company came to cause harm to those inside: estranged spouses or partners, members of the local community upset about the activities of the company, etc. (this is not including mass shooting incidents). Companies need to have avenues where employees can come forward about potential issues so that protective actions can be taken. EHS managers can be a voice and proponent for that.

One last item that I feel has to be mentioned is basic facility security. All employees need to be responsible for the security of the company, which means no one comes in the door unless they are an employee or an authorized visitor (meaning the employee who asked them to come is meeting them at the door and escorting them at all times). While facility security may not fall under the EHS umbrella at an organization, it’s ultimately about keeping people safe, and that’s absolutely what EHS is about.

Q: How can safety leaders prioritize gender equality in their workplaces?

I have to start by saying that gender equality must be a company priority, not just an EHS priority. But EHS leaders can be a key player and promoter of gender equality in a number of ways. They can ensure there are adequate resources for both men and women, including PPE but also basic needs as separate restrooms and bathing facilities. They need to make sure hazards that are specific to women OR men need to be addressed and controlled the same as those that affect everyone. Additionally, they have to ensure that the controls implemented are able to be used by both men and women. Are they positioned in a way that everyone can reach or access them? Are they appropriate in size so that everyone can use them correctly? It also takes smaller things such as addressing large groups as “folks” or “everyone” instead of “guys.” Consider the use of more inclusive words or language used in safety posters or announcements.

Q: Why is it important to have women working in EHS?

Having diversity and inclusion within the EHS profession is essential to our success. Women relate to people differently than their male counterparts, which can lead to a more inclusive environment. They can bring perspectives to situations that are unique to women, which again can lead to more inclusivity and can also allow for better solutions. Having women as EHS leaders can help other women in EHS by being role models and mentors, which makes the profession as a whole stronger. At the end of the day, it’s gender equality, gender equity, diversity, and inclusion that is important to our companies, our employees, our teammates, and the world around us.

For more information, check out these resources:

“Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2020”. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.toc.htm

“Safety+Health’s 2021 Salary Survey,” Safety+Health Magazine, November 2021 https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/21831-salary-survey-2021