It’s a tricky situation to be stuck in a portaloo with a pad or tampon to dispose of and no bin in sight.

This was often the case for electrician Brooke Thompson. 

Out of the thousands of construction sites she’s worked at during her five-year career, only two have had sanitary bins.

Willow Rolton, a second-year building apprentice who is also no stranger to this, says the situation usually involves an awkward dance of trying to hide the pad or tampon when you come out of the loo, and discreetly chucking it in the nearest skip.

Brooke Thompson

Sometimes workers also cope by not changing their sanitary items as often as they should, according to President-elect of National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), Colleen Upton.

In one case, a worker was even going home to change her period products, she says. 

“I had a young apprentice tell me she was driving home at lunchtime when she had her period to change. She had to eat lunch in the car on the way there and back.”

Why not just ask for a bin?

Why don’t these workers simply ask for a sanitary bin on their worksite?

Colleen, who’s been in the construction industry for 30 years, says it can be an intimidating environment for a woman or a person who gets periods.

“For young women, they’re already outnumbered on sites and often copping enough shit as it is. They don't want to ruffle the feathers.”

Colleen Upton

Brooke and Willow are outspoken online about their experiences working as women tradies.

Even so, they both say it took about three years before they felt confident raising the issue of sanitary bins with foremen at worksites.

Brooke says workers not feeling comfortable to raise this issue with their employers – and the lack of sanitary bins in the first place – are symptoms of working in a mostly male environment and the “unspoken stigma” that can create. 

“I've never ever told a man on site that I was on my period, because I just knew that they would never socially accept that.”

Willow has bled through her work clothes while on site, and has seen the degree to which coworkers would avoid talking about periods.

“I've had instances where I've not realised and gone the whole day and no one's mentioned anything. I'm so certain people would have seen it and just not said anything to me.”

And when periods are acknowledged at work, the result can be alienating.

Willow is in the process of an endometriosis diagnosis; when her periods are particularly painful, she takes a sick day.

Willow Rolton

She says the industry has a culture of valuing not taking sick leave, and she’s sometimes met with comments like: “Why would you take a sick day off? You get it every month, surely you’re used to the pain now?”

Rance Winter, a founder and managing director of an electrical company in Queenstown, says he can sympathise with how workers feel intimidated to bring up issues like lack of sanitary bins with higher ups.

“I've worked in the trade long enough. And I know what certain guys are like, and I do find it more in the older generation. They don’t really like change.”

“I think they're a little bit harder on everyone, and make you feel like you can’t talk up because they [think they] know better.”

You shouldn’t have to ask

Colleen says if a worker were to ask for a sanitary bin, it’s likely an employer would be receptive and look into it.

“Probably if they did [ask], someone would just go ‘Oh, sorry, we hadn’t thought about that.’”

Brooke says: “The reality is a lot of women in trades, we are guinea pigs… It’s this training wheels situation where if we do need something, we just need to ask for it.”

But she wishes she didn’t have to ask.

“I wish men had more thought for people outside of their own bubble.”

A basic need

Brooke has since moved onto menstrual cups and period underwear, as have lots of her fellow construction workers who have periods, both to make things easier at work and as a more sustainable option.

However, what kind of sanitary item to use is a personal choice, and even cup or period underwear users may occasionally need to use a tampon or pad.

Willow uses a mix of period underwear and tampons, as she says she finds menstrual cups “really difficult to change in a portaloo, and often the portaloos don’t have running water so it’s a really messy and awkward situation”.

Colleen says regardless of what sanitary items workers are using, sanitary bins are a “basic need” and should be at work sites by default without a worker needing to ask – especially considering how difficult it can be to strike up the courage to ask.

“Should we still be having this conversation about toilets and sanitary bins? We shouldn't. It should be just part of your site setup checklist.”

Rance’s electrical company added sanitary bins to their site checklists two years ago, but he acknowledges that this is “not common across the industry”.

He says that while “the older generation still have their businesses running and haven’t been phased out yet”, it’s unlikely we’ll see any major movements towards sanitary bins becoming commonplace at worksites.

“I feel like for them to make a change, it has to be a law change.”

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