5 Ways to Build a Safer and More Diverse Construction Workforce

5 Ways to Build a Safer and More Diverse Construction Workforce

With 80% of the industry reporting a hard time hiring skilled craft workers, construction firms need to focus on their most valuable asset: people. 

Women represent approximately 10% of the overall construction labor force, with much lower representation in trades positions. Yet they are one of the largest demographics with the potential to fill an only widening labor gap. 

On the whole, a career in construction can be a great choice for women. Strong pay, good benefits, satisfying work it offers a potentially fulfilling career for men and women. However, the few female trailblazers currently in the trades today, say safer, more sanitary, supportive, and diverse construction environments are necessary to make jobsites more inclusive.

Workers’ safety is also a top priority for contractors. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), falls are the leading cause of private-sector worker fatalities in the construction industry. 

Many companies are participating in a shifting landscape in the construction workforce by taking steps to create a more inclusive and injury-free jobsite. These critical steps will help to save lives while opening the door for more women to step into the workforce. 

Supporting this critical industry movement, Autodesk is funding a grant program with one of the largest construction trade organizations – the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) – to supply select, in-need member contractors with fall protection harnesses sized for women who work at heights.

Providing proper-fitting personal protection equipment (PPE) is one vital step towards safer, more inclusive, and diverse construction jobsites. However, other measures are required to create greater diversity and injury-free sites. 

Below, we’ll  discuss five critical areas of focus for firms working to reduce workplace accidents and promote construction diversity and inclusivity:

1: Training and Awareness

It’s common sense: safety starts with training and awareness. 

Lorien Barlow is the director of Hard Hatted Woman, a feature-length film documenting the brave stories of female tradespeople and helping raise awareness about barriers for women wanting to work in construction. Barlow says one key way that companies can address training and awareness is by assigning a safety officer to patrol jobsites and check in with employees. 

Carly Hayden, Safety Manager at Columbia Construction Company visits 10 to 15 sites per week doing just this. “As I walk the sites, I often see workers wearing gear that doesn’t fit well and is baggy, even if it’s fastened as tight as it can go.” She adds that she sees both women and men wearing harnesses that are not fit to their size.

As part of her role, Hayden educates workers, superintendents, and subcontractors on best practices in fall protection safety and other jobsite issues. These are practices she learned herself through a Competent Person’s Fall Protection Course training funded by Columbia.

There are several simple, but frequently disregarded practices Hayden may correct on site. One such: “You should always inspect your equipment before use. You never know if someone could have possibly tampered with it when you went on break. Always make sure to keep your harness in a dry place where it’s not exposed to direct sunlight. Doing so can degrade and dry out parts over time. Treat your PPE as you would treat anything that is of value to you.” 

Another firm addressing training and awareness is McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. 

McCarthy is actively taking steps to shift its culture, recruiting, and retention efforts to employ more women. Part of this initiative is McCarthy’s NET (New Employee Training) program aimed to set up every new worker for success.

“We match each new worker with a mentor who really takes their interests to heart,” shares Kevin Maitland, Vice President of Corporate Safety at McCarthy. “It gives them somebody to talk to. The mentor gives them tips and training on how to properly work in the environment they’re in, and helps them address any issues they encounter on the jobsite.”

2: Proper Fitting Personal Protective Equipment 

Jacqueline Horowitz, a 33-year construction industry veteran, is currently a project executive with Plaza Construction, a firm recently recognized by the New York Post for its inclusive “Men and Women at Work” construction signs. Horowitz recalls how difficult it was in the early days of her career to find protective equipment that fit. With no options available, she had to buy men’s boots.

Likewise, Robin Jones, a project manager with Plaza Construction in Miami, says 13 years ago, when she started, it was much harder to find boots and clothes that fit. “It’s much better now,” Jones comments, “but it’s still hard to find a good vest that fits.”

Columbia Construction’s Carly Hayden notes how critical it is to have PPE that fits all bodies.

“If it's not a snug fit and you were to take a fall, it may prevent you from falling further, but you could still suffer whiplash, an out of place joint there is a lot of damage you could do.”

At McCarthy, Maitland says their firm has also acknowledged the issue. “Historically, our industry did a poor job of offering the right sizes of PPE. We had to work to get it right, and cue up the manufacturers who could help us address this. Now, we consistently offer a variety of sizes.”

Skanska is another company leading the way when it comes to providing proper fitting PPE for all employees. Earlier this year, the firm rolled out gloves and two customized safety vests designed for women based on feedback from its own female employees. The company plans to expand the apparel line soon to include surveyor vests and high-visibility jackets for winter. 

3: Innovation and Technology

In the past, it was thought that women weren’t suited for construction work, especially the trades. Yet, it’s clear in the examples illustrated by Hard Hatted Woman that despite the challenges, many of the women who choose this work are pursuing their passion.

The film also illustrates how bringing innovation to the industry both fosters and supports an environment more welcoming to women. 

“Truth is, this work is more about your brain,” says Ambra Melendez, an ironworker featured in the film who has made a successful career within the predominantly male, rough and tumble construction trades.

“Even women get caught up in thinking the best worker is the strongest worker,” adds film director, Barlow.

“But the more women stand up and say I’m smart, a good communicator, and have the right technical skills, the more it helps men get in touch with their individual value as opposed to always competing to be the strongest one on the site.” 

Melendez agrees. “I’m always looking for the safest possible solution to a problem. Because when we make it safe for us, we make it safe for everyone. The minute you make construction safe for women, all of our issues go away,” she says.

With the help of technology, general contractors can now make decisions about projects and subcontractors based on the growing safety data available from jobsites. 

“Within the last 10 years technology has come so far, we can now actually do something about the data we collect onsite which used to just be pen to paper,” explains Hayden. Columbia Construction is one of many firms across the industry providing teams with access to data and data entry remotely. The data is now giving them a historical record of which subcontractors regularly meet standards of jobsite safety, providing more accurate risk prediction and allowing contractors to select subs with the highest safety ratings.

“You need to make sure that you're protecting the people, which is first and foremost important, but then also the overall project and company,” says Hayden.

4: Leadership and Culture

Construction companies that are taking women’s safety at the jobsite seriously are seeing the returns for all employees. Nonetheless, there is still significant progress to be made. 

Jaqueline Horowitz at Plaza Construction recalls a time when prospective employers would inevitably ask her if she was planning to get married or have children. Those questions are illegal in job interviews today, but at the time, she says, she knew she had to say “no” if she wanted the job. 

A landmark moment helping to shift industry culture forward came in a recent decision made by The Ironworkers Union in New York to extend maternity leave to all union members. The change provides up to six months of paid leave before birth and six to eight weeks of paid leave after. Many other unions are seeking to duplicate this success. The shift is a result of concerns about pregnant women on the jobsite being exposed to common chemical, physical, and biological agents that may be hazardous to fetuses.

Beyond improving family policies, more construction firms are incorporating robust training and policies around issues like sexual harassment and unconscious bias, in addition to focusing on strategic diversity and inclusion efforts. In a recent ENR article, Steve Edwards, CEO, Black & Veatch, shared, “Diversity and inclusion lead to better results. Strong collaboration where people recognize different perspectives that are being shared openly and transparently among everyone always leads to better decisions and outcomes.” The company, along with the leaders of dozens of construction firms and technology companies like Mortenson, JE Dunn, and Autodesk, have signed CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion Pledge. By signing, the companies are showcasing their leadership and commitment to building workplaces that support transparency and communication on D&I initiatives in addition to the implementation of unconscious bias training. 

But alone, training and pledges are not enough. Only action will incite real transformation – both from the top-down and bottom-up. Company leadership should support and provide directives for both career growth and continuous learning opportunities, while resources and cultural implementation should be provided from ground level. 

5: Open Communication and Transparency 

A major part of the culture shift driving greater inclusion and safety comes down to fostering people-to-people interactions. Fostering a culture of workers willing to speak up when concerns are present is critical for future-oriented firms. 

Programs like McCarthy’s NET training, pairing new and seasoned workers for reverse mentoring, is one such method for improving communication and establishing an environment that fosters discussion and transparency. 

Hayden speaks about the importance of transparency and person-to-person interaction at Columbia.

“Anytime I'm onsite, I make a point to say hello to people and introduce myself. I want them to feel comfortable and know I'm not there to bust people. I truly want you safe, and if you don't feel comfortable or safe I want you to tell me or the superintendent. Everyone needs to know you’re never going to get in trouble.”

Hayden says the effort is making a difference at Columbia, which stresses a message to all employees that no matter how minor, it’s better to mention an issue before it escalates. 

Construction Diversity and Safety: Mutual Strategies for Future Success

Construction firms have a number of priorities to address in an industry experiencing ever-increasing demand and complexity, plus the challenges of a shrinking pool of skilled labor. Despite these challenges, safety and risk remain an absolute top priority for firms. 

The saving grace may just be in what many firms are recognizing; making jobsites safer and more inclusive goes hand-in-hand. With strategies that connect the dots between training, innovation, and technology, in addition to a people-first approach, many firms are making positive strides, securing their workers’ safety and the capacity to bring more women into the workforce.

If your firm would like assistance in acquiring fall protection harnesses for women. The grant program will fund the purchase of approximately 300 fall protection harnesses sized for women. AGC members can apply for the grants until the application window closes on January 10, 2020. Winners will be notified in advance and honored at the AGC’s annual convention, to be held March 9-12, 2020 in Las Vegas, NV.

AGC members can apply for the grant here.

Allison Scott

Allison Scott is Director, Customer Experience & Industry at Autodesk. Leveraging over a decade in the architecture and construction industries, Alli is a “technology translator” who supports customer experience and industry advocacy within the Customer Success team at Autodesk. She oversees the strategy and execution of customer-centric programs that complement the customer journey to help construction teams gain the most value out of their technology investments, and foster loyalty and trust. Alli has been a key contributor for Autodesk’s leading-edge approach to customer experience, including formalizing customer listening programs for construction, a highly rated global executive council program, a growing online community, and industry impact programs that help drive change for issues like safety, upskilling/labor shortage and DE&I. Prior to Autodesk, she supported the national innovation group of Skanska USA's construction division helping to investigate and integrate game-changing tech like BIM/VDC, wearables, IoT/sensors, and drones onto the jobsite, and built business strategy for new products and services inspired by innovation endeavors. Alli holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and Arts Management from Emerson College and an MBA in Innovation and Design Management from Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. When not exploring the next great emerging tech, Alli can be found tending to her herb garden or spending time along the rocky shores of Massachusetts or lakeside in Maine with her architect-husband and young son.