Today, women comprise nearly half of the overall labor force, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Yet, set foot on a manufacturing site, and you'll see a different picture altogether: Women currently make up less than one-third of the manufacturing workforce. And in fields like construction, women represent as little as 2.2 percent of the workforce, a level of representation barely one-sixth that of all other industries.

With representation comes visibility, and without it, as the latest data makes clear, women in industrial workforces are disproportionately exposed to safety risks — to the point where on-the-job violence is now the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. Let's dig into the alarming state of workplace safety for women in industrial environments, then turn to three ways you can begin to lead positive change at your organization now. 

the dangerous gender bias in safety equipment 

Ask any one of your front-line supervisors — they'll tell you that when workers don't comply with requirements for personal protective equipment (PPE) like safety gloves and goggles, reasons of fit and comfort are at the top of the list. 

That kind of routine noncompliance is a huge issue in fast-paced industrial environments. After all, the net annual cost of workplace injuries for employers across industries is estimated to be $161.5 billion, with organizations shelling out approximately $1 billion each week on workers' compensation costs alone. And when it comes to preventable fatal work injuries, industries like construction, warehousing and manufacturing tend to finish at or near the top of the fold year after year.

PPE is usually the very last line of defense against workplace hazards.

If you remove that line of defense, safety risks escalate quickly — and those risks aren't borne by all employees equally.

For instance, one of the interesting findings from Women and Safety in the Modern Workplace, a recent report from the American Society of Safety Professionals, is that women, more so than men, tend to struggle to find well-fitting protective gear. 

Compounding the issue, the report suggests, some manufacturers, rather than actually addressing the unique safety equipment needs of women, resort to subterfuge: They'll resize gear, or use smaller versions of standard men’s gear, for women. It's an approach that doesn't have its roots in biology, science — or, for that matter, safety — but rather in a cynical and misguided cost calculation. 

Ultimately, whatever the exact root cause may be, practices such as these are clearly unacceptable. Change needs to happen fast, and it should start at your organization today.

Women, more so than men, struggle to find well-fitting protective gear.

women's safety in industrial workplaces: 3 best practices 

So what can manufacturing and logistics companies do in the near term to counteract gender-related safety risks?

In terms of PPE, one simple best practice is to designate a gender-balanced group of employees who "test drive" all PPE before you roll it out to the workforce at large. (It's also a good idea to have these employees use checklists as part of their evaluations, which can help you standardize and gain insights from the input you receive.) Bear in mind that PPE distributors are generally happy to provide potential customers with sample products, so taking this approach shouldn't involve significant financial outlays on your end. 

Another best practice: Take a hard look at your training programs. Are you actually addressing specific risks and hazards faced by women in your workplace? Are appropriate support resources in place? What can you do to improve? 

If you aren't sure where to start, the latest statistics from the National Safety Council (NSC) should help you out. According to the NSC, women are disproportionately affected by the following four types of workplace injuries: 

  • assault-related injuries
  • accidental injury by another person
  • falls on the same level (for example, falls caused by slippery surfaces or unexpected stair heights)
  • ergonomic issues (for example, stresses or injuries that result from repetitive motions)

Accounting for these areas would be a good start, to be sure. It's also long overdue. The link between domestic violence and workplace violence has been conclusively established, with consequences that disproportionately impact women. (Of women murdered in the workplace, for example, 42 percent are killed by a family member or domestic partner; of men, that number is two percent.) No less astonishingly, the number of women who have suffered assault-related workplace injuries has actually shot up in recent years by as much as 60 percent.

Viewed purely from a human standpoint, never mind the impact to business, this cannot be tolerated. And employers will be — as they should be — held responsible for spearheading change.

Finally, across the manufacturing and logistics space, increasing women's representation in safety-related professions — which will ensure that women's voices and perspectives are included in the development of safety guidelines from the outset — must become an industry-wide priority going forward.  

There's encouraging evidence that progress is being made in this direction, but the status quo isn't going to change overnight — and the evidence strongly suggests that a lot more work remains to be done. Right now, the American Society of Safety Professionals estimates that, among younger safety professionals, women still make up only about 30 percent of the field — which is discouraging news. If that continues, without proactive intervention, the safety professionals of tomorrow are going to look a whole lot like the safety professionals of today. 

key takeaways 

Greater awareness around gender bias in PPE, more robust training, and increased representation of women in safety-related professions: these are important places to start. Moving the needle in these areas would go a long way toward promoting a more balanced approach to safety guidelines, protocols and practices in manufacturing and logistics environments.

Above all, an approach to safety that more conscientiously takes into account the health and well-being of all employees, not just men, is obviously long overdue. But the bottom line is that until organizations specifically tune in to and root out occupational hazards that disproportionately affect women, those hazards will likely remain.

For more safety tips, and to learn how the manufacturing and logistics experts at Randstad can connect safety to productivity and performance at your organization, get in touch with us today.