Today’s workforce has come a long way with regards to improving the conditions for both men and women on the job. That said, women are still struggling for equitable financial compensation in some fields and access to the same range of employment opportunities men enjoy.

Progress has been made, however, and that progress has opened up employment opportunities that come with new risks and hazards that women have not traditionally faced. Our safety systems haven't always been quick to catch up with the change. In this article, we'll look at how your EHS program needs to evolve to accommodate women in your workforce.

Hire Based on Ability

In today’s world, it is unfair and discriminatory for a business to hire based on an individual's sex.

To promote true equality within the workforce, every job description needs to be clearly stated. Then, the appropriate candidate must be selected based on their knowledge, skills, and ability to perform the job. Hiring based on ability means that, sooner or later, all occupations will have both men and women on the payroll (for related reading, check out Workplace Discrimination: The LGBT Workforce).

Take Gender Out of Your Safety Training

There are some hidden implications of hiring based on ability rather than gender, especially when it comes to understanding safety. Since safety is a culture and an attitude as well as a discipline, some male-dominated industries have developed their learning and safety materials from a male perspective only. This can cause alienation, insecurity, and even fear among women who are new in these industries.

Safety training should, for the most part, be gender neutral. The exceptions are so industry- and task-specific that it isn't worth getting into here. A spinning blade doesn't differentiate based on the worker's gender – but it's not hard to spot safety messaging that is written with a male only audience in mind. "Don't put your fingers anywhere you wouldn't put your" – well, you know the rest.

This type of humor arguably had a place early on, back when the audience was entirely men and safety messaging wasn't taken as seriously. But it's time to retire it. Society moves on, and safety messaging needs to be taken seriously. You wouldn't want to go back to using PPE from 1960, so why would you rely on safety messaging that is just as outdated?

Get the Right Safety Equipment and Standards

Many pieces of safety equipment have been and still are designed specifically for men. When developing equipment and corresponding safety protocols for the construction industry, the average body size is considered to be 6 feet and 250 lbs. Where does this leave the 5 foot 5 inch, 150 lb worker? Physical differences between women and men in average height and weight dictate that the smaller worker with the ill-fitting safety equipment is more likely to be a woman.

While the safety equipment industry is making strides towards developing equipment specifically designed for the female body, the larger issue is companies trying to fit every body size into an arbitrary standard. Safety equipment can be purchased to fit the largest and smallest of your employees, but too often the economics of bulk orders convinces companies to aim for the average. This leaves workers on either end without properly fitting protection, nullifying a large part of the safety benefit you're trying to create. Workers with poorly fitting equipment are more likely to take it off and, even when worn, do not get the full protection for which the equipment was designed.

Safety Concerns Specific to Women

In some cases, little documentation on how women should be treated is provided. Ideally there is an existing culture where every team member is given basic respect, but experience has shown that women can easily be victimized in male-dominated industries. Sexual harassment is as common risk along with other types of unfair treatment. Since women are carving a path into industries like logging, oil and gas, and other traditionally male jobs, they are often in a small minority. This means they have few role models to look up to and lack some of the informal supports that other workers enjoy (also see Workplace Bullying: An Act of War Threatening the Health and Safety of Your Employees).

Along with the age old problems of discrimination between the sexes in the workforce, there are some emerging concerns when considering female worker health and safety in the workplace. Research done by the European Agency For Safety and Work also suggests that women spend longer hours working when the unpaid work that they do in roles such as cleaning and looking after children is considered. This increased workload increases the overall stress levels, putting women at an increased risk for nervous breakdown or burnout (learn more in Managing Employee Burnout to Reduce Deadly Accidents). On top of this, women in traditionally male fields are often put under pressure to "prove themselves" and end up with a less balanced workload than their male counterparts in the same role.

Welcoming Women to Your Workforce

Slowly but surely, policies and procedures are being changed to accommodate for the female worker. Eventually, there will be nothing out of the ordinary about women in the workforce across all industries.

There are steps that you can take now to make your workplace more welcoming to women when it comes to safety. These include reviewing your safety messaging with the understanding that your audience is both men and women, acquiring safety equipment that fits a more diverse range of body types, and auditing your safety program and employee training to ensure the topic of sexual harassment and discrimination is explicitly covered with clear expectations for conduct being set.