Blog: Construction is not just about getting your hands dirty

Pauline McCabe
Pauline McCabe

Pauline McCabe of Kier Construction gives her account of being a woman in construction, the path she took to getting there and her views on getting more women to consider a career in this sector.

“When I grow up, I want to be a health and safety manager.”

There’s a phrase I bet that no teacher has ever heard escape from the lips of a six year old. It may not have been my childhood dream, yet here I am, a health and safety manager who loves her job.

Like many children with a love of all things cute and cuddly, I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. But by the time I left school, I was confused about what I wanted to do, so rather than make a life-changing decision at a time of uncertainty, I moved to Greece and did some bartending and an office manager role.

When I came back to Scotland a couple of years later, it was time to grow up. My experience in Greece got me a job as an office manager, sharing my time between an architect’s studio and neighbouring engineering company. This was my first taste of life in the construction industry.

When I began working with the engineering company full time, I started working closely with the planning supervisor, and got involved in quality assurance when the company was installing masts for mobile telephones. I found out about the risks involved and how to overcome them, and this sparked an interest in health and safety. There were personal reasons too; my father was an electrician in the shipyards and picked up pleural plaques, an asbestos related disease and my brother was a miner and has vibration white finger, a condition triggered by continuous use of vibrating hand-held machinery where you can lose all feeling in your fingers.

Having decided on a career in health and safety, I went to work for as many sub-contractor companies as possible, including bricklaying, cladding, roofing and steelwork companies as a consultant, to gain a broad knowledge of the construction sector. While working, I also attended university two nights a week for two years to gain my National Examination Board for Occupational Safety and Health qualification. Shortly afterwards, I became a health and safety adviser before moving to Kier Construction Scotland. I joined Kier as a senior health and safety advisor and was promoted to health and safety manager within six months.

I think the saying ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get’ pretty much sums up my role within health and safety. The fact that every day is different is one of the many things that I really love about my job. The most rewarding aspect is definitely the fact that I’m helping to protect people at work and making a real difference to their lives. I tend to spend one day a week in the office, working on strategy and planning, and the other four days going out to sites, speaking to employees and generally putting the theory into practice! The biggest challenge is getting the workforce to put their safety first at all times, and to place the same care and attention on themselves while working as they would their children and other family members.

As a woman in construction, I’m aware there’s a gender imbalance, but there have been no barriers for me personally. Kier is a very welcoming and diverse company, but I strongly believe that more needs to be done within the industry in general to redress the gender imbalance.

I think the construction industry is still suffering from an image problem. People are under the impression that if you work in construction, you are in a dirty and cold environment. It doesn’t have to be like that – for every role that involves getting your hands grubby, there is another which does not. Construction is a thriving and rewarding industry with so many different roles, and we need to change perceptions for people to realise this and consider a career in this sector.

I’m hoping that I can play a small part in this. I’m often invited to visit nursery and primary schools to give talks to children about the dangers of construction sites. While I’m there, I also try and give them a bit of an insight into this industry, in the hope that I might inspire some young people to change their dream career from a vet, police officer or footballer to an engineer, architect – or even a health and safety manager!

  • Pauline McCabe is health and safety manager for Kier Construction Scotland

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