“We use better technique and a lot of guys get hurt because they just try to muscle it,” one study participant said
Sound the alarm: Female firefighters can help make the dangerous job safer for everyone, a new study suggests. But some fire departments’ hypermasculine culture may smother their ideas from seeing the light of day.
Though women make up just 3.5% of all firefighters nationally, their presence could hypothetically improve fire safety because they often seek more ergonomic techniques to perform physical tasks, are motivated to report injuries and ask for help, and can help shine a light on how hostile work environments erode safety. That’s according to new FEMA-funded research published in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health.
“We use better technique and a lot of guys get hurt because they just try to muscle it or god forbid that they ask somebody for help and god forbid they ask a woman to help with a ladder,” said one study participant, a firefighter identified as Mary. “There is a culture of guys, they don’t want to ask for help,” firefighter Fatima added. Another woman recalled resistance after she ordered her crew to leave a property fire: “The insurance company will be able to rebuild it. I can’t rebuild you.”
Others described sexual harassment and mishandling of their complaints. “My last straw there was a lieutenant that kept touching me and he finally slapped my butt, and the chief told me ‘oh, he’s just joking. You got to learn to deal with that,’” said a firefighter identified as Joan. “That was the answer for everything … it was kind of pointless bringing stuff up, so I just learned to keep my mouth shut.”
Of course, problems like these stemming from a hypermasculine climate occur only “in some cases, in some firehouses,” study co-author Jennifer Taylor, an associate professor at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, stressed to Moneyish. “This is not a blanket statement. Some fire departments have figured it out; they’re accepting of women.”
Still, the alpha-dog environment at some firehouses discourages workers from soliciting help, reporting injuries and complaining about harassment, many women firefighters told the researchers in focus groups and interviews. And that “limits all firefighters’ ability to speak up and thus address safety concerns.”
“There are lots of things that are missing from fire service safety,” Taylor said. “One of the contributions, I think, can be the perspectives of women when it comes to safety and weighing risks and benefits.”
Female firefighters “bring something unique and novel to high-risk work,” she added. “I’m not saying women should take over — I’m saying bring more women into the mix.”
To make the climate more palatable to women, Taylor said, fire department leadership can listen to female workers about the physical and psychological burdens of their jobs and “initiate the conversation on things that impact their day-to-day life” — whether that’s returning to work after having a child, having a flexible work environment, or offering a breastfeeding room. Departments should ensure that disciplinary action for harassment targets the harasser instead of the victim, and have zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination, she added.
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