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Women gradually overcoming hurdles, making strides in safety roles

The workplace safety industry may still be a man’s world, but women are gradually moving into high-level safety jobs and narrowing the gender gap.

Between 2005 and 2018, the percentage of women in health and safety engineering professions increased from just under 14.9% to 23.0%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet issues like discrimination, harassment and bullying, stereotyping and pay disparities still persist, according to women working in the industry who spoke to Business Insurance about their career struggles and successes.

When Kelly Bernish entered the safety profession in the 1980s, she got used to being the only female at her workplace and at industry events.

“I was literally the only woman that had safety responsibility either at the facilities or the corporate level,” said Ms. Bernish, president of safety consulting company Global SHE Solutions LLC in St. Petersburg, Florida, and founder of the American Society of Safety Professionals’ Women in Safety Excellence group. “Being that one-off person was a little challenging and intimidating, but mostly by self-belief.” 

After a workplace injury sidelined her nursing career, Kathi Dobson took a job with a manufacturing firm that asked her to match up its policies and procedures with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, leading her to the safety world. Now, more than 20 years later, she’s a safety director at Alberici Constructors Inc., based in St. Louis, and the only woman among the 15 safety officers the construction company employs.

Ms. Dobson said at the beginning of her safety career — and being a woman in an authority position — she believed she needed to yell and be forceful to get her point across, but quickly learned that listening to workers on a jobsite could often lead to a creative safety solution.

Turning that dynamic into a partnership has also been key to Melissa Rohrer’s success.

“I’m not a safety cop, I’m not an educator,” said Ms. Rohrer, safety director at D&L Electric Co. in Houston, a company of about 150 employees. “I like to tell (the workers), ‘I work for you. It’s my job to help you work safe.’” 

Christine Jay, the senior operational excellence coach at Club Car Distribution Center in Appling, Georgia, said that as a safety professional, she works toward being jobsite mayor, not the sheriff.

“I think it comes naturally as you’re advancing in a safety career that there’s going to be a time when you need to be that sheriff and have an iron fist from a compliance standpoint,” she said. “But then you’ve got to transition into really being that business partner who helps find the solutions.” 

Educating oneself on the specifics of different positions is key to being taken seriously and becoming an effective safety professional, said Crystal Turner-Moffatt, safety and security manager at engineering firm WSP USA, based in New York.

“You have to know their vernacular, their terms,” said Ms. Turner-Moffatt, who said she has experienced discrimination in her career not just because of her gender, but also because she is African-American. “Whether (the worker) is an electrician, a carpenter or a pipe fitter, you have to educate yourself on what they’re doing … to earn their trust.”

But many women in safety said they haven’t always been taken seriously and have experienced their share of discrimination.

“Harassment, bullying and intimidation are still pervasive in the construction industry on certain projects and within certain companies,” said Ms. Dobson, recalling the graphic language and art that workers left on a beam at a worksite one day.

Supportive employers can help women persevere, but stereotypes held by superiors can occasionally be part of the problem.

Ms. Bernish, who has held senior safety positions at Anheuser-Busch InBev SA, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc. and Walt Disney World Resort, said that when a severe injury was reported at a theme park she worked at, her boss told her that “he didn’t think I could handle the situation because I would become too emotional because I was a mom and it was a child that was injured,” she said. “I took offense to that. I am able to separate my personal feelings from my professional life, and I don’t think that would have come up had I been a man.”

Diana Stegall, a senior loss control specialist with United Heartland in Minneapolis and president-elect of the ASSP, has also dealt with outright bias, such as when a masonry contractor said he didn’t allow “skirts” on his jobsites.

While progress has been made, more can be done to support women once they have entered the safety field, they say. The lack of properly sized personal protective equipment for women presents a safety hazard.

“A lot of women work in vastly oversized gloves, which give them no dexterity,” Ms. Dobson said.

Ms. Bernish would like the industry to realize that women just want hardhats, gloves and boots made for them and “not pink or leopard print.” 

Equal salary is another common concern.

Connie Muncy, one of six corporate safety managers for power industry service provider NAES Corp., based in Issaquah, Washington, said a supervisor told her early in her career that she was being paid less for her work because she was a woman. While Ms. Muncy believes she is being paid fairly for her work today, she said salary surveys and conversations with industry colleagues indicate that compensation in the safety profession is still imbalanced.

“When you’re doing the exact same thing in an organization that men are doing, and you confront a supervisor with a salary disparity and you don’t get any response, that’s very sad, and it still happens,” she said.

Kristen Peed, the director of corporate risk management at CBIZ Inc.’s Cleveland office, said that at a previous risk and safety position, a mentor made her realize how underpaid she was and gave her the confidence to negotiate when she applied for the next big position.

Women “can feel ashamed to talk about salaries and money, and there is a gender pay gap,” she said. “Being able to have more power at the negotiating table and understanding that I was worth a lot more than what my company was paying me really did change my (career) trajectory at that point.”