Focus

Focus Archive

Women, Work and Health

March 1998
Sheila Pantry, OBE

Worldwide, women are an increasing percentage of the paid workforce. Health in the workplace for all workers is also becoming an increasingly important topic as improvements are considered to be essential.

Taking these two factors together it is becoming of greater importance for employers, legislators (in particular for the European Union), researchers, occupational health physicians and others to pay attention to women's health in the workplace.

What has been done so far?

The European Commission has introduced a number of pieces of legislation to improve the health of all workers, but apart from a few specific pieces, eg, "pregnant workers", the legislation is genderless. The European legislation makes no distinction between women's jobs and men's jobs, since workplaces should be adapted to all workers and each workplace job must be risk assessed. There is a possible danger, however, that the application of the laws will be "gender blind" and that men will provide the "norm" since most of the traditional methodology of occupational health and industrial hygiene was developed in male workplaces. There are no hand tools, protective gloves or personal protective equipment for both men and women, so the employer will need to ensure that both genders are using and wearing equipment which fits properly. The EU Framework Directive is designed to improve matters; Article 6, Section 2 states that:

"The employer shall implement the measures ... on the following general principles of prevention:"

  1. avoiding risks;
  2. evaluating the risks which cannot be avoided;
  3. combating the risks at source;
  4. adapting the work to the individual, especially as regards the design of work places, the choice of work equipment and the choice of working and production methods, with the view to alleviating monotonous work and work at a predetermined work-rate and to reducing their effect on health;
  5. adapting to technical progress;
  6. replacing the dangerous by the non-dangerous or the less dangerous;
  7. developing a coherent overall prevention policy which covers technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors relating to the working environment;
  8. giving collective protective measures priority over individual protective measures;
  9. giving appropriate instructions to workers.

The UK Health and Safety Executive have produced some guidance specifically for women, e.g. New and expectant mothers at work and other publications aimed at all workers, e.g. Health risk management.

From the literature and statistics available, in general it can be seen that women are less likely than men to be injured in work accidents, but more likely to suffer from occupational illness. Dramatically it could be said that men are more often killed at work whereas a lifetime of suffering is more likely for women.

Also, a search of the main OSH databases shows a very small percentage of the references to be specifically on women's health. The recent English Edition of Forskning & Praktik (No 4 1994) states that the health of Swedish working women, especially those with blue collar jobs has declined since the 1980s. The decline in health among women is due to changes in the content of jobs predominantly held by women. Also, more women are choosing jobs that expose them to danger and violence, eg, police and security officers.

Research

The same issue of Forskning & Praktik highlights the fact that the need for occupational health problems of men and women to be seen separately has long been overlooked. Research on the job-related health problems has been lagging behind, but it is now gaining momentum including the research on risks to expectant mothers and their unborn children.

It is noted that up to now women are almost totally absent in epidemiological studies - mainly because there have been too few workers or they have worked too irregularly to meet the criteria for inclusion. Many other women's occupational health problems need researching including the results of working with chemicals, ergonomics, pregnancy, stress and psychosocial factors.

In 1993, the OECD published a report on women's health at work which surveyed eight European countries and the USA and Canada, made the following recommendations to improve the jobs and health of women:

Internationally

The International Labour Organisation has paid attention to women's health at work and through the ILO Conventions and Recommendations care has been taken to improve standards. Likewise the World Health Organisation has set targets and set out a global strategy for health for all by the year 2000. Within this strategy WHO has produced 38 targets which are being developed and introduced by the European Region which set out to ensure equality in health by reducing existing inequalities between groups so as:

"To provide all people in the region with a healthy and safe working environment. This will mean introducing occupational health services to cover the needs of all workers, and the development of health criteria to protect workers from physical and chemical hazards, the protection of vulnerable groups, and the provision of education and information to protect workers."

Even though more research is being carried out on women's health at work, the pace should be accelerated and we should look forward to improved working conditions for all workers in all industries.

In the meanwhile you should look at the various databases HSELINE, NIOSHTICS and CISDOC - all to be found in the OSH-ROM CD. The full text of the appropriate European and UK legislation and the Health and Safety Executive's and Commission's publications in OSH-CD.

The products mentioned in this article are available for a free trial. Why not try these for yourself and check out the contents of these exciting sources of information against your own workplace needs?

Further information

Health and Safety Executive, New and expectant mothers at work: a guide for employers, HS(G) 122. 1994. ISBN 07176 0826 3

Health and Safety Executive, Health risk management: a practical guide for managers in small and, medium-sized enterprises, HS(G) 137. 1995. ISBN 07176 0905 7

Health and Safety Executive, Good health is good business: an introduction to managing health risks at work, IND(G) 202. 1995.

Women, Work and Health: synthesis report of a panel of experts, OECD, Paris 1993. OECD/GD 182 (1993).

Forskning & Praktik. No 4, 1994, Women's work and health, Orders: Förlagstjänst. Tel: (+46) 8 730 9800. Fax: (+46) 8 730 9888, or write to: Förlagstjänst, National Institute of Occupational Health, S-171 84 Solna, Sweden

Occupational Health, edited by Sheila Pantry, Chapman & Hall 1995. ISBN 0412604108

ILO Conventions and Recommendations and other publications. Sales Manager, ILO, Millbank Towers, 21-24 Millbank, London SW1P 4QP, UK. Tel: +44 (0) 171 828 6401 Fax: +44 (0) 171 233 5925

Dealing with Aggression and Violence in Your Workplace, by Sheila Pantry, London, LA Publishing, 1996 ISBN 1 85 604 180 8