Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine the issues that women face in EHS workplaces.
In recent years, EHS leaders have been shifting focus towards becoming more sustainable and embracing concepts such as Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG). The social component of ESG aims to bring subjects to the table that in the past would have been handled by the human resources (HR) department, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Gender equality in EHS is becoming a greater topic of conversation among safety professionals, and it is important for leaders to understand the legitimate issues that women face in EHS work environments.
Currently, EHS is perceived to be a very male-dominated industry, and according to the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), women make up only 22% of EHS workers who have earned the certified safety professional (CSP) designation. It seems as if more women are entering EHS, especially in entry to mid-level positions, but unfortunately there isn’t enough data to show the actual disparities between men and women, says ASSP.
The reason representation is important in EHS is because diversity of thought and perspective is needed to make sure leaders can cover all of their bases when taking into consideration the needs of their employees, according to a Training Industry article on the gender gap and safety. Training Industry recommends that companies take a look at their recruitment and retention efforts in EHS to make sure that a diverse group of people are making safety decisions with the needs of all employees in mind.
Improperly fitting PPE
One of the issues that women face in EHS is improperly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE). According to the ASSP, many workers say they are noncompliant when their PPE does not fit properly, and an alarming number of injuries occur due to employees not using or modifying PPE while working, regardless of gender. However, women can have a harder time finding properly fitting PPE that works for their size and proportions. Often, women will come across work gloves or safety goggles that are too large, and gear that is too long or bulky, which can create tripping hazards or more exposure to hazards in general. There is also a lack of maternity PPE for women who are pregnant.
One of the reasons for ill-fitting PPE is the higher costs of making and supplying custom PPE that comes in larger range of sizes. The ASSP quotes Abby Ferri, CSP, who says that manufactures will usually just resize gear to junior sizes or create a smaller version of the standard men’s gear. However, this implies that all women are small and thin, which is not the case, and PPE needs to fit every individual employee well in order to provide the most protection. To combat this issue, the ASSP recommends that stakeholders take the following actions to help make PPE more accessible to women:
- Gather data to develop universal fit guidelines for PPE.
- Provide ratings and reviews of PPE and other work equipment and gear.
- Publish guidance geared toward equipment users.
- Participate in the development of an ASSP technical report on PPE that would include guidance on selecting gear for different populations.
Another major issue is violence in the workplace, which has an interesting statistical breakdown along gender lines. According to data presented by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), homicides accounted for 9% of all fatal workplace injuries in the United States in 2019. There were 454 homicides total, of which 366 victims were men, and the remaining 88 victims were women. However, 20% of all workplace deaths occurring to women were homicides (88 out of 437 total women), whereas only 7.5% of the workplace deaths occurring to men were homicides (366 out of 4,896 total men) in 2019. This means that there are more men in total who are being murdered at work, but the proportion of women being murdered is much higher.
In 2019, the BLS shows that there were 41,560 nonfatal assaults and intentional injuries at work, and 63.5% of these incidents happened to women. This data also provides a breakdown of who the assailants were in these situations, which can provide insights into what industries these incidents are occurring in. Additionally, in 2016, women were more likely to be killed at work by a relative or domestic partner, while men were more likely to be targeted by robbers, coworkers, customers, and other unspecified assailants, according to the BLS.
This data points to alarming trends for both men and women. It shows that women are being murdered and intentionally injured at higher rates proportional to the number of women present in the workplace. It also underlines the fact that a massive number of men in the workforce are dying, due to intentional violence and other safety incidents. While violence in the workplace may be affecting significantly more men total, the violence towards women should not be overlooked, and neither should the nature and sources of these incidents.
To target the issue of workplace violence against women, the ASSP recommends that stakeholders collect data on causes and incidences, build employee awareness, create a prevention framework, develop tools for dealing with violence and quantifying financial losses, and advocate for the issue. The ASSP also quotes Wells Bullard, CEO of Bullard, who recommends developing a holistic program that:
- Educates and trains employees about the problem,
- Evaluates building security policies and procedures,
- Offers employee assistance programs, communicates their availability and highlights their value as a resource for those under duress, particularly from domestic violence,
- And provides a hotline so employees can report any potential issues happening at work.