I normally do a roundup of the FAAM asbestos conference, letting those that didn’t get to attend know some of the more important areas that were discussed by the leading thinkers in our industry. I will be doing that, but this piece is in many ways much more important.
** Warning, the content includes an upsetting personal revelation, and some readers may be affected by the issues raised.**
Colette Willoughby’s talk on the second day, Female Analysts and Four-Stage Clearance Testing, was the most raw and personal talk I have ever heard at a conference. The talk was split into two parts – the first a short history lesson on how things have changed during Colette’s distinguished career.
Having started out in 1982, Colette really was at the birth of the new world of asbestos analysis. She entered an industry where – astonishingly – a clearance just meant the contractor dropping a pump off at a lab. She witnessed it change to one where analysts started actually doing tests and – most revolutionarily of all – a visual, where the analyst actually checked the contractor had done what they said they would. My career started shortly after this, where people still talked about what it used to be like. Now this seems more like myth and legend.
The main part of the talk, though, related to Colette’s own experiences, and those of four other women she had interviewed. The interviewees were Jean Prentice, Joanna Parker, Sam Collins and an anonymous analyst still actively doing four-stage clearances (4SCs). The five women between them represent a huge amount of experience, gained from the mid-1960s to the present day.
Colette’s talk frankly and openly discussed the widest range of experiences, from the broadly positive (Sam and Jean), to the worst you can imagine. Colette, despite being one of the warmest and most professional people you could ever want to meet, has experienced some of the most unwelcome experiences possible. From initially not being allowed on site at all, to – after years of campaigning – being told: “OK, but we don’t think you’ll cope”.
What followed was a litany of sexist ‘banter’ from contractors, with comments such as: “You’re a woman, you’re just picky” and “You’re more used to cleaning: no wonder you can do it better.” Yet at the back of Colette’s mind, a traitorous voice insisted that now she’d convinced her bosses she could do the job, this was something she just had to put up with.
The ‘banter’ was shameful enough, but examples of criminal abuse followed. On numerous occasions, naked operatives have intentionally followed her into the decontamination unit (DCU) – the most recent occurrence being only four years ago.
Then came a horrific experience where she was raped on site by the supervisor. As Colette explains: “I was sexually abused and was raped on numerous occasions, but did not have the ability to go back and say anything because I was quite consistently told by him ‘Nobody’s going to believe you. You’re 23/24 years old, I’m a middle-aged man. I’m well respected, you were just asking for it. You’ve come into our environment [and] you’ve got to put up with it’.”
How Colette kept it together after that I will never know.
While spared the full horrors of Colette’s experience, Joanna and the anonymous, still-serving analyst both had multiple examples of threats of, or actual sexual abuse. And they both shared the belief that reporting it would be futile.
The hostile environment
Asbestos is of course part of the construction industry. To put some numbers to the hostile environment that women in our industry endure, Colette turned to a 2017 report, which found that four in 10 women had been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual behaviour, and that one in nine mothers had been dismissed, compulsorily made redundant, or treated so poorly that they left the post. The pay gap was 17.3%, to add insult to injury.
Colette is the chair of NORAC, Principle Examiner for asbestos at BOHS, and Director and Technical Expert at ACL. She is, quite frankly, one of the most impressive consultants in the industry, but the abuse and discrimination that she and other female analysts have experienced left me and the rest of her audience stunned. Speaking personally, I am ashamed of the ignorance that I had been labouring under.
How do we change?
Colette then moved on to what needs to change, and how. The distance we need to travel is vast – but at some levels utterly basic. For example, PPE must by law be fit for purpose and fit for use. But disposable overalls and underwear are all made for the male body shape and don’t fit women. Here, companies are effectively in breach for failing to provide the correct protective equipment.
The DCU poses a particular problem. Construction (Design and Management) regulations state: “Separate washing facilities must be provided for men and women, except where they are provided in a room the door of which is capable of being secured from the inside, and the facilities in each room are intended to be used by only one person at a time.”
DCUs are shared, yet their access is controlled by either a key or a combination lock, both of which are external. Again, this means they’re not compliant. I can only think that DCU manufacturers must be ignorant of the issue, or they would have changed this already.
Finally, Colette stressed two more areas where we need to do so much more. The first is the glaring need for simple respect. It should go without saying, but is clearly, sadly, very very lacking. Male colleagues must do all they can to help here – calling out even the borderline ‘banter’ – never mind the sexist abuse above.
Employers need to acknowledge the differences, and provide training so that female analysts are better prepared for the pressures. Crucially, they also need to offer support, so that analysts are comfortable and secure enough to report and get help when they need it.
As I said, it was a raw and eye-opening talk, and one which I profoundly hope will bring about change. Hearing the testimony were HSE officers, asbestos removal trade organisations, and consultancy business owners among others. It’s an oft repeated phrase that asbestos is the most regulated industry after nuclear – surely there were enough of the ‘right’ people in the room to make a change.
If you’ve been affected by this subject and wish to respond or raise similar concerns, email firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a totally confidential inbox that is monitored by Colette, Jean Prentice and Sara Mason, who are all on the working group set up in the wake of FAAM to address the issue.
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