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: Push to get more women involved in workplace standards development

Push to get more women involved in workplace standards development

When firefighters attend to damaged solar panels on homes and buildings, they can be vulnerable to electrical shocks, to which the body resistance of men and women is different.

The limit for women is roughly two-thirds that for men, so when developing the standard for the control of such hazards, the difference was considered to ensure protection of all firefighters.

Another standard, which specifies the minimum operating space within earth-moving machinery such as excavators used in the construction industry, was originally developed with the physique of male operators in mind. This was later updated to accommodate female operators, to ensure their comfort, health, performance and safety.

The development of standards - whether new or revised - that take into account gender differences is one of 25 action plans in the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development endorsed on Tuesday.

Standards covering areas from workplace safety to food hygiene are meant to ensure Singapore companies maintain consistent quality, build customer trust and can access global markets.

As part of the proposals, Singapore Standards Council (SSC) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) had developed a gender strategy under the Singapore Standardisation Programme in February.

SSC deputy chairman Tay Jih-Hsin told The Straits Times: "(Gender-responsive standards) ensure that both women's and men's needs, experiences and concerns are an integral dimension in the design and performance of the product, process or service undergoing standardisation." For example, ventilation standards based on men's metabolism that do not consider women's lower metabolism, will leave women feeling cold in the office environment, which can affect cognitive ability and productivity.

Through the new gender strategy, ESG and SSC aim to raise awareness and increase participation of women in standards development. But Mr Tay acknowledged that increasing female participation in standardisation work is challenging and will take time, especially in sectors where standards experts are predominantly male.

An ESG spokesman said the gender strategy will focus on four areas, which include promoting gender diversity in standards committees, and providing standards committees with guidance to develop gender-responsive standards.

It will also focus on capacity building such as by participating in the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and regional gender diversity programmes, as well as collecting relevant data and monitoring the participation level of female experts in the standards committees.

ESG and SSC will work with industry stakeholders to review national standards over the next two to three years to ensure gender responsiveness in standards.

According to ISO and IEC, some of the most common physical or physiological differences between men and women that would merit consideration by standards developers include grip and body strength, size of body and body parts, voice and pregnancy, he said.

Mr Tay, who is also managing director of engineering firm Swee Hin Power Systems, said minor adjustments can have a great impact.

For example, in his company, instead of having a conventional range of sizing and fit for all uniforms, female uniforms cater specifically to them, mitigating any safety issues arising from ill-fitting uniform, such as sleeves getting caught in machinery.

Those whom ST spoke to welcomed the move towards including more women in standardisation work and to develop more gender-responsive standards.

Dr Goh Yang Miang, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's department of the built environment, said the move is a meaningful one, adding that men have dominated most Singapore Standards work groups and committees he has participated in.

Noting that there are more men in heavy industries, Dr Goh said more gender-responsive workplace safety and health standards may encourage more women to join heavy industries such as construction, shipbuilding and ship repair.

He highlighted standards that could be more gender-responsive. For example, the Singapore Standard for full body harnesses that protect against falls does not consider the needs of female users, he said. A typical harness has a strap across the chest, which can be uncomfortable for women.

"If they don't feel comfortable in tightening the chest strap, it can cause safety concerns during a fall arrest," said Dr Goh, who is also former chairman of the health and safety engineering technical committee at The Institution of Engineers, Singapore. "Currently, most workplaces do not purchase harnesses with designs that are more suitable for women - for example, Y-shape and X-shape design, which remove the horizontal chest strap of the H-shape design."

Mr Arjun Nair, a workplace safety and health officer in the financial sector, said standards should be revised to offer more detailed and objective examples without the need to specify any particular gender.

An example from the current Code of Practice for Office Ergonomics is the standard to ensure sufficient knee clearance and legroom underneath the work surface to accommodate a 95th percentile male worker. He suggested changing the language or indicating a specific dimension instead.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.