Mind the Gap: Analysing Gender Inequality in Workplace Safety

Gender inequality is a problem which affects all areas of work, and workplace safety is no different. Figuring out the degree of gender inequality within the workplace safety industry — an industry with roles ranging from warehouse racking inspectors to the chair of HSE — is just as important as figuring out the degree of gender inequality within the finance industry, marketing industry, or any other kind of industry.

And yet, despite this, workplace safety is not an industry that is scrutinised enough for its gender equality. Or, rather, it isn’t scrutinised as much as other industries are. The likely reason for this, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is that workplace safety is not a “sexy” industry. As a result, while gender inequality in the finance and tech industries are covered by stories in the Guardian and  the New York Times, gender inequality in workplace safety is discussed nowhere near as much.

This is problematic for two reasons. One, it suggests that gender inequality within the workplace safety industry doesn’t happen (which it does). Two, it suggests that gender inequality within the workplace safety industry doesn’t matter (which it does).

Construction is the type of work that comes to mind when we think of workplace safety. It is thanks to the build quality, instalment, inspection, and upkeep of buildings, warehouses, and factories of all kind that workplace accidents are avoided. Statistically, though, women are significantly less likely to do this kind of work — with females making up a paltry 11% of employees in UK construction.

Most Racking Inspectors in the UK are Men

In the UK, the foremost qualification for warehouse safety inspectors is the SEMA approved racking inspector course. According to HSE racking inspection legislation, all racking inspections should be performed by a SEMA approved racking inspector at least once a year. The safety of warehouses depends on these men and women. However, by and large, racking inspectors in the UK are men.

This matters not just because there shouldn’t be industries where women are unable to break into, but because workplace safety applies to everyone equally. Danger doesn’t discriminate, and if we have fewer women in the workplace safety industry, we are less likely to make rules and regulations which consider women as well as men. That’s why, when important safety updates are issued by some of the biggest racking inspectors in the UK, we need to know that a range of voices were listened to. After all, workplace safety is about reducing fatalities, which means workplace safety equality can literally be a matter of life and death.

HSE is aware of the problem and they are attempting to tackle this imbalance. In its recent executive shakeup, HSE put two women and two men at the top of the organisation. HSE also released a report stating women made up 45% of recruits for the organisation in 2008/2009.

Still, the fundamental issue of the workplace safety industry being dominated by men remains. According to HSE’s own assessment, women are “under-represented in the health and safety decision-making process”, “their views and experience of female-specific health and safety issues are often marginalised, underestimated or overlooked”, and — worst of all — “research studies tend to exclude or ignore women”.

Sadly, this is an issue which extends beyond the world of health and safety, evidenced by a large body of research. A collaborative study performed by Princeton University and Brigham Young University found that, proportionally speaking, women talk 75% less than their male counterparts in decision making discussions.

It’s clear from all of this that the issue of men making and enforcing safety rules for other men continues to be a problem. It’s also clear that this problem is not one which HSE alone can solve.

What Can be Done?

For women, the challenge is to break through yet another glass ceiling in the world of work and to make sure that within the industry their voice is heard.

For men, it’s not so much a challenge as it is an acceptance of the fact that gender diversity is a good for business and a woman’s input on safety is both valid and important. While this sounds simple enough, the evidence shows us that it is not happening.

The potential rewards of a gender-equal workplace safety industry are great. Research shows that organisations do better when workplaces are more diverse. Intuitively, this also makes sense. A decision which is shaped by every kind of person is a decision we’re all more likely to be on board with.

This is something which HSE should bear in mind. After all, as part of the UK government’s continued stance on austerity, HSE is faced with the challenge of reducing workplace fatalities as its budget is cut from 140.9 million in 2016/2017 to 128.4 million in 2019/2020. Since the current government took power in 2009/2010, HSE’s budget has been cut by 46%.

The result of all of this cutting has, thankfully, not been an increase in workplace fatalities. However, it is fair to say that workplace fatalities have stopped decreasing. If HSE is looking for a way to improve the safety of British workplaces while continuing to spend less money, perhaps all they need to do is listen to a wider range of voices. Addressing gender equality in the workplace safety industry isn’t just the moral thing to do. It may well turn out to be the economic thing to do as well.

This is a guest post from Justin O’Sullivan of Storage Equipment Experts. 

Image: Workplace safety via Shutterstock

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