We know there’s a gender gap in leadership and that the gap impacts everything from employee engagement to a company’s financial results. Recent research indicates that there is also a gender gap in workplace safety – which has more immediate, life-threatening implications.
The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) recently convened a group of safety experts for a summit focusing on women’s representation in the occupational health and safety (H&S) profession, women’s access to personal protective equipment (PPE), and workplace violence. The resulting report shares insights on the gender differences in H&S and recommendations to improve.
The Impact of the Gender Gap
The lack of women in H&S roles is a problem for several reasons, but perhaps the most troubling is that “decisions are being made that don’t really take into account differing views [and] differing needs of women in the workplace,” says Diana Stegall, president-elect of ASSP. From gloves that don’t come in smaller sizes to fall protection equipment that doesn’t fit the average woman’s body shape and fat distribution to machinery that most women are too short to operate safely, a failure to take gender differences into account can create significant safety risks on the job.
In an interview with Scientific American, Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” shares that medical and transportation researchers and scientists in other fields often don’t collect data on women, resulting in problems including misdiagnoses, increased car accident fatalities and adverse drug reactions, and other negative effects. The solution? “It’s literally just ‘collect data on women and separate it out from the male data,’” she says.
In addition to PPE disparities, women are more at risk of workplace violence and assault than men, according to data from both ASSP and the National Safety Council (NSC). In fact, the NSC found that 70% of assault-related injuries that result in time off work happen to women, and ASSP’s report states that workplace violence is a leading cause of death among women.
“Hostile work environment cases are prolific and demonstrate the importance of good management practices, along with the growing importance of training supervisors and managers about worker safety,” says David Reischer, CEO of LegalAdvice.com.
Addressing the Gap
“The best way to protect employees,” says Maureen Vogel, a spokesperson for the NSC, “is to create a safety culture that empowers both women and men to report hazards quickly, participate in regular safety training and adhere to industry regulations. Companies should use data to build their safety culture, so thoroughly understanding the risks each employee faces is critical.”
Stegall believes one solution is to increase the number of women in H&S leadership roles. Unfortunately, safety is traditionally considered a male profession, and many women entering a safety leadership role “have to work harder to get the employees – in that case, primarily men – to take her seriously and to recognize that she is there for them and really wants them to be safe,” she adds. Organizations should look at their recruitment and retention efforts, especially in safety roles, to ensure a diverse group of people are making the decisions that make employees safer.
Jared Pope, founder of Work Shield, says that companies that believe that “1-800 numbers and training seminars” are all they need to prevent assault “are behind the proverbial eight ball.” What does work, he says, is “creating a culture of inclusion, respect and diversity” using a “third-party platform” to encourage safe reporting of incidents. In addition, Reischer recommends using a “buddy system” as well as training to mitigate the risk of workplace violence. Training should “explore the real-life-type scenarios that are potentially dangerous … and set up systems to avoid dangerous incidents.”
“Gender-neutral means we’re blind to the differences in gender,” Stegall says, “and that doesn’t really work when it comes to diversity and inclusion.” Know where there are disparities in how men and women are trained, how they advance through the organization and how their unique safety needs are addressed. Only then will you create a workplace that is safe and enables employees to do – and be – their best.