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Women in Hardhats are a Growing Trend in the Construction Industry

MADISON, Ala. — Nationally, women make up less than 10 percent of the construction industry – 9.1 percent according to the National Association of Women in Construction.

That number has been steadily increasing over the past decade, so much that the NAWIC started a Women in Construction Week, held annually in March. It highlights women as viable components of the construction industry and raises awareness of the opportunities available for women in the construction industry.

Hoar Construction, headquartered in Birmingham and contracted to build the new Rocket City Trash Pandas’ baseball stadium in Madison, has long since broken through.

When it comes to women wearing hardhats on a construction site, Hoar Construction says women are beginning to dominate in engineering and project management positions within their company. Hoar’s female workforce is up to 20 percent, but what kind of challenges do women face on a construction site and how do so many find their way into the business?

Meet Amanda Black, Safety Manager

Amanda Black

Amanda Black is a safety manager for Hoar Construction and is with the crew at the baseball stadium. Amanda is 29 years old and her parents have worked for Hoar for over 32 years.

“I grew up on a construction site,” said Black. “As a child, I picked things apart to see how they were built. Even with toys, I wasn’t interested in the thing itself.

“I was more interested in how it was put together and what was inside that made it work.”

Black went to college on a scholarship, but the school didn’t offer academics in engineering or construction.

She came back to what she knew. Eleven years later, she is working for Hoar and is back in school for construction management.

“No one should be limited in what they want to be, if they have the heart for it,” Black said. “You have to have a thick skin to be a woman among so many men, but you need a thick skin in life anyway, right?”

As a safety manager, Amanda notes that everyone on a construction site has a very important job and the more skills sets you have, the more it benefits you.

“I started out as a laborer trying my hands at carpentry work, concrete, and I know how to operate some of the equipment,” she said. “I also help with the shell work on empty buildings and cross over to quality control when they need help.

“It’s what you do – you work your way up.”

Meet Jessica Yarbrough, Assistant Superintendent

Jessica Yarbrough

Jessica Yarbrough grew up learning the cabinetry trade from her father who worked as a boat captain three days on and three days off. Cabinetry was a hobby he excelled in and still does.

Jessica can build cabinets, but she chose not to pursue the craftsmanship side of construction. Instead, she has spent the past 7½ years traveling from project to project with her husband who is a superintendent for Hoar Construction.

Yarbrough has worked on a Disney World project in Orlando; built a physical fitness facility for the Army in Clarksville, Tenn.; built an outdoor shopping center in Baton Rouge, La.; and a commissary at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (Fla.)

Now she is in Arlington, Va., working for the first time without her husband on a 12-story midrise apartment building.

“I am an exterior scan superintendent,” said Yarbrough. “I am responsible for the brick, metal panel, glass storefront, and glass curtain wall that makes up the exterior on this project. Every day, I oversee the work of our trade partners, including brick masons, a metal panel guy, our window installer, and ironworkers.

“I work a little bit with the exterior framers and with our air barrier system, and I handle all the scheduling, coordination, and I manage workflow to ensure the project gets built on time.”

Yarbrough started college in premed but, while in the process of switching to nursing, an advisor noticed she was taking extra math classes. She asked Jessica if she was good at math and when she answered “Yes,” they encouraged her to pursue engineering rather than the medical field.

“I feel I have grown into the job,” she said. “There were opportunities for workers to pull a fast one on me or to get by with stuff but, instead, we worked through some teachable moments that made us all better at our jobs.”

Since then, there have been only a handful of times when she felt being a woman negatively impacted what she was trying to do.

“I find the day-to-day challenges – getting the job done on time and on budget – is harder than any challenges I face as a woman in a male-dominated field.”

Meet Donna Strange, Assistant Superintendent

Donna Strange

Donna Strange, like Jessica Yarbrough, is an assistant superintendent for Hoar Construction and she coordinates among multiple trade partners, documenting and making notification of field changes in real time on any project.

“I am the boots in the field,” she said. “I communicate with the project superintendent the challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed with schedule and cost impacts. I listen to the concerns of our trade partners, always keeping one eye open for safety; and I have to make on-the-spot executive decisions to keep the project moving – not just the daily progress – but I have to be prepared to make the calls needed to keep the wheels on the bus during the challenging days ahead.”

Donna said she bounced around a few different professions, all of which left her feeling stuck, without a chance to get out and learn and explore.

“I found myself on a construction project as it was nearing the final stages and I fell head over heels in love with all aspects of the experience,” she said. “I found a profession where everyday there was potential for learning something new.” 

She said her biggest challenge at being a woman in a predominantly male industry is her 5-foot-2, 110-pound stature. It can be hard to show authority when you are petite, but she gets around it by being knowledgeable.

“I keep my eye on the big picture – giving our client a facility that meets expectations and I don’t let my size hinder my authority and responsibilities,” she said. “I focus on always staying calm, listening, and sharing my experience in a situation, before making decisions that affect others.”

Meet Sarah Horton, Project Engineer

Sarah Horton

Sarah Horton joined Hoar Construction officially this past year as a project engineer, but she worked for Hoar throughout college and was a co-op student with them in 2014. Sarah has a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Alabama but, from a general contractor’s perspective, she is at the management level of the job cost perspective.

Most of the work Sarah is involved with is renovated buildings rather than new construction, and she has been assigned to the Samford University campus in Birmingham. Her most current project is the University Center.

“We went in and took everything out including the slabs used to create two floors,” said Horton. “Now we have a shell of a building all on one floor, so we can start over.”

Structural and procedural changes are commonplace in renovations and Sarah’s architectural engineering background allows her to run software programs that a typical project manager ordinarily wouldn’t, such as the popular Building Information Modeling software.

“Typically, when we get a set of documents, they are printed on paper, but obviously building construction is seen much better in 3-dimension,” Horton said. “I use BIM and my architectural engineering background in HVAC design, power distribution and design, and structural concepts of building to get that into a 3-D space and coordinate changes from a general contractor’s perspective.

“Being able to run BIM gives us some control over the original designs using Virtual Design & Construction (VDC), so we can say, ‘You designed this, but we have a sprinkler system that must fit in this space too and it has certain code requirements. Let’s work together to make it all fit in this space with 25-foot high ceilings.’ ”

Sarah was exploring scholarship options while enrolled at the University of Alabama studying dentistry when she was approached by the engineering department, who had her test scores in math and science.

“Because I was a female, I was going to receive a nice engineering scholarship to declare general engineering as my major,” she said. “After one engineering foundations class, I was hooked!

“I agree with Amanda that you have to have thick skin, know who you are, and from a professional standpoint, be confident and understand the depth of your experience,” she said. “Now when I sit down at the table, I may be the only woman at that table, but I feel confident enough to give my opinion.

The Male Perspective

Horton said a lot of older men in the construction industry are against having women on the construction site because they believe it to be too dangerous from a safety standpoint. Unanimously, all four Hoar Women in Hardhats say, “No! We belong here just as much as you do!”

“It puts more pressure on me to make sure I know what I’m talking about,” said Horton. “I don’t get a free pass because I’m a girl. I have to know my stuff and back up what I say because they will go toe-to-toe with me on some things.”

“Construction is an amazing business to be in,” said Black. “For me, construction isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. Construction provided for me when I was growing up, and now it provides for me as a mother.”

Although she did not pursue the craftsmanship side of construction, Yarbrough admits building cabinets is still in her cards.

“My dad still has a shop and all the tools and equipment, so it’s always been sort of like … if all else fails … I can always build cabinets!”

If she does, she will be an even rarer phenomenon since women make up less than 2 percent of carpenters nationwide!

Safety is Paramount as Construction on Town Madison Stadium Reaches Significant Milestones

MADISON — The home for the Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball team is about one-quarter complete.

Concrete and steel have gone up and the underground plumbing and electricity is being laid.

Mud is moving, tractors are pulling, trucks are dumping, and walls are being erected.

The entire Town Madison development may have gotten off to a slow start, but word on the baseball stadium job site is that there will be significant progress in the coming weeks, in anticipation of the December completion date. In fact, the development will reach a point in which it will suddenly seem to go up all at once.

Hoar Construction, general contractor for the stadium, has 80 to 90 workers at the site on any given day. It is just one of many construction sites in full-build mode at Town Madison.

So, what is it like out there on a day-to-day basis? Is everybody staying safe?

Hoar Construction Safety Manager Amanda Black

“Some days there is a beehive of activity and it can get confusing with all the other construction going on around us,” said Bart Wilder, vice president of safety for Hoar Construction, “From a site perspective, it is nonstop all day. Building for us is not just about building on time, under budget, and to a high level of quality. It is about doing all of those things safely and seamlessly.”

Every trade has its own inherent risks associated with their type of work and for that reason, Wilder said they work diligently to get the right trade partners (subcontractors) on every project.

“We choose partners who understand that safety comes down to understanding what our risks are and having the processes in place to identify and mitigate them,” he said. “Hoar sets the culture and expectations for the project, but our partners represent various scopes of work like concrete and steel, utilities, plumbing, electrical. It takes all these trades to put together a project like the new stadium and most of the safety plan begins in preplanning when our safety representatives sit down with partner safety representatives to discuss what they see as hazards on the upcoming job.”

While the construction industry operates under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Primary Standards for Safety, there are other regulatory industries OSHA incorporates into its standards by reference. In fact, OSHA leans heavily on other building trades such as the National Fire Protection Association to write their own codes for fire extinguishers, fire suppression, or chemical exposure. The National Electrical Code also has its own safety protocol, incorporated into OSHA’s standards.

“Safety is not a burden because our partners share the safety responsibilities with us,” said Wilder. “Also, our obligations are not predicated on the minimum of OSHA standards. Our obligations are more along the lines of industry best practices, designed to be above and beyond OSHA.”

Hoar recommends every team start every shift by looking at specific tasks and asking each other – “Do we have the tools, equipment, manpower, and materials to do today’s tasks? Even more importantly – what are the hazards surrounding that task?” “Are there things that can hurt you in the process?”

Amanda Black, Hoar Construction’s safety manager at Town Madison, begins every morning with a field walk through the jobsite. She checks to see what the last shift left for the next day, and to assess whether site conditions require a superintendent or a team to clean it up. She also makes sure there is room to walk around and maneuver safely and room to operate their equipment.

“We preach two things all the time to the workforce,” said Black “‘Safety is everybody’s job’, and ‘If you see something, say something.’

“I’m out on the site most of the time making sure everyone is doing their job safely. We have safety meetings out here every Tuesday and free time safety analyses every day to keep the workers thinking about job safety and thinking about ways to prevent hazards from happening.”

She said as the general contractor, Hoar requires every team have safety meetings among their group, and Black confirms those meetings daily and any issues that arose from them, checking notes among supervisors to see if anyone spotted any safety hazards that need to be discussed.

“Amanda is in the field, boots on the ground, all day long,” said Wilder. “She is constantly observing not only potential unsafe conditions that can arise, but she knows how to approach an unsafe situation and talk about a way to fix it in a respectful, professional, an educated manner,” said Wilder. “Amanda is trained in safety rules and regulations, so she speaks with authority and people onsite respond to that.”

Construction safety also requires a great deal of foresight. Amanda spends a lot of time at the drawing table trying to safely predict any kind of hazard before it presents itself.

“We have all these great rules and regulations in our industry, but it is not about the regs with Hoar,” said Wilder. “We want you to go home safely. Whoever is waiting for you at home is more important than anyone at work.”

There is an economic message in that strategy as well.

“Part of our success is being able to create all these great construction jobs – jobs that in the process, send you home every day no worse for wear than however you were when you showed up.”

The number one injury on any construction jobsite is trips and falls.

“It seems that areas designated for storage tend to be where a plurality of these trip-and-fall injuries take place,” said Black. “We run to the problem, not away from it. We go back over the environment where they fell to see what caused it, and we check tools and equipment to make sure they were working properly.

“We call in our superintendents to engage quickly and work the problem until it gets resolved.”

“I believe the construction industry has gotten safer in relation to previous generations,” said Wilder. “OSHA always looks at incident rate as the total number of recordable injuries that occur in year, and the total number of incidents that result in someone getting hurt or put on restricted duty due to the severity of an incident.

“Those numbers are tabulated against the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the national industry averages. Hoar Construction has consistently ranked well below the industry average in jobsite injuries for more 10 years. We are very proud of that.”