Construction group aims to improve job site safety for women

Access to correct PPE, mentorship and leadership opportunities the key issues to tackle

Construction group aims to improve job site safety for women

Women make up 4 per cent of Canada’s skilled trades workers but with a shortage of workers looming, provinces are looking to female workers to make up the gap.

But women face a number of barriers when trying to access these jobs, which are still perceived as being non-traditional for women. And even once they manage to break through, safety concerns abound.

“One of the biggest [issues] is personal protective equipment (PPE). Either it is not being made for women, or if it is, it’s too expensive. The companies aren’t buying it. And it’s actually becoming a barrier for women because if they say nothing, they work unsafe. If they say something, they’re being put in a vulnerable position to be let go from their job,” Kayla Bailey, communications and project manager, Ontario Building and Construction Tradeswomen (OBCT). Bailey is also a tradeswoman herself – a steamfitter, gasfitter, welder and member of U.A. Local 46 Toronto.

Bailey mentions an example of a female iron worker she spoke to who has trouble accessing proper footwear for her smaller build. “When she buys the smallest size boots that are made for iron workers, she has to wear five pairs of socks just to be able to wear them.”

There are issues with different types of PPE across the board, such as harnesses for example which are not made to adequately fit women’s chests. “You play a life or death game every single time you go up on a lift in a harness,” says Bailey. “And the fact of the matter is, the reason they don’t have women’s harnesses is purely because they’re just slightly more expensive.”

Aside from PPE, access to proper childcare or running water on job sites in also a concern. “Even women that have been in their career for several decades – some of them have never been on job sites where there was hot, running water. They’ve never been on job sites where there’s a proper bathroom, a flush toilet, etc. This is a huge concern,” says Bailey.

“Even now, there are conversations happening about whether or not there needs to be separate washrooms for women on job sites. And what’s funny is that every single person sitting at that table, within the province and within the health and safety community, every single person at that table is a man. Tradeswomen are not invited to these conversations, because quite frankly I don’t know a single tradeswoman that wouldn’t advocate for women deserving their own washroom. We’re working very hard on getting a seat at that table.”

Advocating for yourself when you’re the only woman in the room can be extremely difficult. This is one of the reasons why the OBCT was founded in 2020. Its mission is to “support, recruit, retain, and inspire women into the skilled trades careers,” says Bailey.

OBCT engages its members through mentorship and collective advocacy. It also does leadership and mental health training as well industry outreach. They notably offer a course called ‘owning the room’ which is a confidence-building course.

“We’ve noticed that though a lot of women are very successful in their skilled trades careers, they’re not necessarily being given the same opportunities into leadership roles as their males peers. We’re trying to alleviate that gap and help them and gain the confidence in the leadership qualities necessary to break into those roles,” says Bailey.

And women need to be encouraged to look into these roles, because a career in the trades can be incredibly fulfilling. Bailey herself hadn’t initially planned on a career in the trades, though her mother is a tradeswoman. However, after a revelatory trip after high school that she took with her mum she realized that it was a viable career choice. One of the main things she was drawn to was the “solidarity among co-workers. I really like that camaraderie.”

Solidarity and camaraderie are key to the OBCT. When it was founded, the group had around 30 women. Now, it includes over 400 women from different trades across Ontario. There are women from “all different trades, different levels of experience, different sectors, different levels of representation. It’s very welcoming and it’s very open,” says Bailey.

Providing a safe space for women in important, because aside from the aforementioned issues there is a problem with getting respect on the job and being treated equally and fairly.

“One of the biggest things that I hear every single day is the lack of enforcement on anti-harassment policies,” says Bailey. These are policies that exist, that are legislated in the labour code as well as in Ontario’s health and safety legislation. But, she says, “unfortunately it’s not being enforced.”

“Women, when they break into this industry, they don’t sign up to be abused. They didn’t sign up to be harassed,” says Bailey. “I’ve yet to meet a single tradeswoman that hasn’t had some sort of [harassment] story during their apprenticeship or even during their career.”

The group plans on developing an anti-harassment course which is “not going to be just focused on gender issues, it’s going to be completely intersectional and hit all the biases. Our goal is to make that a mandatory ticketed item,” says Bailey. “This year, [the goal] is to develop and implement the training within the unions. Next year, we’re going to try to legislate this as a mandatory ticketed item.”

When it comes to harassment, Bailey says that though some people will still have these outdated behaviours, for a lot of people it comes down to lack of exposure or lack of education. This training should hopefully go a long way in changing worksite behaviours.