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As the Godfather of soul James Brown said “This is a man’s world but it would be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl”

When I entered the asbestos industry and became an analyst back in the early 1980’s I quickly became aware of how few women or girls were part of my work life. This was quite a time when the man was typically seen as; the bread winner, the home owner, the person in charge with women almost being subservient and unlikely to really have meaningful careers. After all the woman’s role was to have children and then stop at home.

At the time I never really wondered too much as to why there we so few women carrying out site analytical work and clearance testing. I became quite used to the routine derogatory comments, which usually came thick and fast when I failed an area as unsuitable. I was repeatedly reminded that I was competing in a man’s work environment and couldn’t show any signs of weakness so just shrugged everything off as something which came with the territory.

During my years on site as an analyst I suffered a wide range of both verbal and physical abuse and each time was reminded that there was no point in even trying to raise this. After all, what else did I expect and more so who would believe me so just suck it up and get on with the job.

Over the years the amount of clearance testing I was doing naturally reduced as I moved into more senior and management roles. During that time the world also moved on with more recognition of women in the workplace. Naively I also thought that the experiences I had encountered on site would also have been a thing of the past. Unfortunately, how wrong could I have been.

As part of the FAAM Asbestos 2021 Conference I had agreed to do a session with regards to the role of the female analyst and clearance testing. At the outset my intention was to demonstrate how things had changed over the decades but I also wanted to try and understand why females are so under represented in the sector. An initial poll had shown that less than 10% of clearance testing analysts were female, even though employers said they aways made great analysts, so clearly something wasn’t right.

As part of my research for the conference I spoke with a range of female analysts; some who had been around for more years than myself right through until current day analysts. I was quite horrified to find that the verbal and sexual abuse which I had endured on numerous occasions was not a thing of the past but was and is still occurring today. At the time of the conference, I took the nervous decision to recall some of my more horrific site experiences. Including how I was convinced by the rapist (aka site supervisor) that no-one would ever believe me and what else could I expect. After all, if I wanted to work in a man’s world, I had to bear the consequences. On this first occasion I did ask my manager to be removed from the job but was too ashamed to say why so ended up having to stay to suffer the same on more than one occasion.

As difficult as the conference session was, it did however help to open up this previously unspoken side of things. As a result, other analysts have come forward with equally horrific experiences. As with many things once you are aware of a problem it poses the question as to what can be done. In order to look at this whole topic in better detail a working group was established in December 2021. This Female Analyst Working Group comprises of females who have analytical/clearance testing experience and includes stakeholders such as HSE and UKAS. The working group has a number of strands as the issue is fairly complex and intertwined between the analytical side and also the asbestos removal contractor side. We have been providing updates on the work of the group at various conferences and also begun similar at the current round of ACAD Regional Member meetings. Whilst each audience will be different and more interested in some areas than others, one area which has been welcomed is with regards to Decontamination Units (DCUs). It has been a long-established practice that site analysts, whether male of female, will use the LARCs DCU. This will be, as a minimum, for undressing and changing into their PPE and often will also include going through and showering after leaving the enclosure after the visual inspection. If we then consider when an analyst is showering and at their most vulnerable what safeguards are there in place to prevent anyone else entering the shower unit at the same time? This occurs quite frequently, often as a genuine mistake where everyone is completely embarrassed but, in some occasions, occurs for more sinister reasons. When trying to consider what or if anything could be done to tackle this dilemma, we looked at all sorts of solutions but each always had as many downsides and in some circumstances could even make the situation worse. For example, the use of a traffic light system to warn that the shower was in use. This would prevent the accidental and embarrassing entry into the shower when it was already in use but could also act as an invitation to someone who had more sinister reasons for entering.

After various suggestions one proposal was put forward by Beacon International which allows for the safety and security of the analyst whilst using the DCU. This proposal uses a magnetic locking system which is operated by the analyst flicking a switch when they enter either the clean or dirty end of the unit. This then locks the whole unit so that the analyst has complete control and also displays a traffic light system to make others aware the unit is locked and in use. Once the analyst has finished the just unlock the unit as they exit it. A simple but very effective solution.

The CDM Regulations require that sites must have separate washing facilities for men and women but where this cannot be provided that the facility must be capable of being locked from the inside to allow males and females to wash separately. This new magnetic locking system also allows DCUs to comply with this requirement of the CDM Regulations.

It’s important to share the details and areas of work of the Female Analyst Working Group as everyone will have a part to play. Again, as James Brown said “This is a man’s world but it would be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl”. How many would want their wife, partner, girlfriend, daughter etc. having to experience what female analysts are still enduring? We need to do what we can to keep everyone safe and well.

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