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WOMEN HURT AT WORK
Ever see a sign saying "Danger! Women at Work"? Ever wondered why not? Well, it is not because women do not do the 3D - dirty, difficult and dangerous - jobs. In fact, for many modern work hazards it is often women facing more of the risk.
you, man or women, think about modern work hazards, stress and strains
would top your list (Hazards 64). You'd be concerned about
violence. You'd worry about lack of control. And in each case you
could be looking at risk factors more likely to affect working women
The Health and Safety Executive's best available statistics, the 1995 Self-reported Work-related Illness (SWI) survey 1, found that one in 10 25-34 year old women workers have been physically attacked by a member of the public at work. Attack rates are generally a third higher than for men.
HSE's SWI stats also showed that hazards traditionally associated with male, industrial work are also commonplace in the jobs women do. More than a quarter of women have to lift or move heavy loads at work. One in five are exposed to dust, fumes or other harmful substances. And the jobs with the highest rates of skin disease, for example hairdressing and repetitive assembly work, are jobs employing a predominantly female workforce.
Women certainly do different jobs. Professor Karen Messing of the University of Quebec, Montreal, speaking at the TUC's 1998 women, work and health conference, noted that "women occupy such totally different niches in the labour market that we can almost speak of separate workforces."
UK statistics show that in 1998 women made up nearly half of the workforce (44 per cent, or 11.7 million workers). The great majority (86 per cent) worked in the service industries - health, education, hotels and restaurants and the retail trade - compared to 59 per cent of men. Only one in seven women (13 per cent) work in construction and manufacturing, compared to 37 per cent of men.
According to an International Labour Office (ILO) report on gender and health and safety: "Segregation by occupation leads to exposure to particular occupational health and safety hazards. The type of health risks women face are associated with their specific working conditions."
No record, no disease
Not that the true extent of women's ill-health is reflected in the statistics. According to Messing, in her devastating critique One-eyed science, occupational health and women workers: "The types of health problems women have are not recognised or compensated, creating a vicious circle where women's occupational health problems are not taken seriously, therefore not recognised, therefore do not cost enough to matter."
Famously liberal Sweden is currently being dragged through the European Courts by the white collar union TCO because of its "sexist" workers' compensation law. Sweden's industrial injuries compensation system "is gravely disadvantageous to women" it says, only approving half as many disease claims from women and 30 per cent of the work injury claims.
The flaws in the Swedish system identified by TCO - a bias against part-time workers, workers who leave the workforce to have children and workers developing conditions over time - apply equally to the UK system.
And there is no body of occupational health research to compensate for poor compensation statistics. Professor Messing, from the University of Quebec, Montreal, told the TUC symposium: "Little research leads to a blinkered view of women's health problems at work - they are put down to 'getting old' or the menopause, or hysteria. Women's problems are seen as unreal. So there is little incentive to do research - or to do any prevention."
Just the job
If your job is packed full of risks, male or female, you will suffer as a result. Research published in August 1999 examined stress and gender in a group of British university workers 2.
The authors concluded that men and women react to workplace stress in the same way. Differences arise because they are exposed to different stress factors, not because they respond differently to the same stressors. "The results... are consistent with other studies that have suggested that working conditions are associated with health in similar ways for men and women."
According to ILO: "In general terms there is no great difference between men's and women's biological response to physical, biological or chemical hazards."
That's not to say that the way we define, assess and deal with risks is in anyway equitable - even "protective" efforts can add to the danger. The GMB union guide on women's work hazards cites an HSE report which found that "unavailability of, or improperly fitting, personal protective equipment has been shown to be a significant cause of some workplace injuries to women."
What is apparent is that women are presented with different hazards or the same hazards in different forms. Men might lift their heavy weights on construction sites, women in hospitals and care settings. Men in manufacturing might shift one heavy object a minute, while women will move dozens of smaller objects over a supermarket scanner in the same time period.
Certain types of especially punishing jobs are almost entirely the preserve of women.
According to Professor Messing, writing in One-eyed science: "In general women's jobs have more 'job strain' than men's, although, the concept applies to men's jobs as well.
"Some emotional aspects of jobs are assigned almost exclusively to women. Perhaps because it applies to few men's jobs, the concept of emotional labour has only recently been developed to describe the requirements of some jobs in the service sector." Emotional labour is "the management of feelings to produce a publicly observable facial or bodily display... sold for a wage."
One example would be women airline attendants, "explicitly paid to manage their own and the passengers' emotions, to prevent fear and create customer loyalty."
Women's workplace health problems are frequently compounded by getting more of the same at home - the "double jeopardy" of domestic work, which can mean a second shift of lifting, responsibility and chemicals topping of those experienced all day at work.
the balance: women's health and safety at work, TUC guidance for safety
reps, TUC, 1999. A woman's work is never
safe, TUC, 1999. Protecting the future - reproductive health and safety,
webpage The TUC's safety website has a page on
health and safety
issues on occupational health and safety.
Integrating gender in ergonomic analysis: Strategies for transforming women's work, TUTB, ISBN 2-930003-33-2, 1999.
Women at work. Themed issue of the Asian-Pacific Newsletter on Occupational Health and Safety, vol.6, no.2, August 1999. Detailed overview, giving a global perspective. Finnish Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Topeliuksenkatu 41 a A, FIN-00250, Helsinki, Finland. Electronic version:
Working well together - health and safety for women, GMB, 1998. Women's health at work - an information pack for members, MSF, 1996. Women's health and safety: a trade union guide, Labour Research Department, May 1996.
HAZARDS MAGAZINE WORKERS' HEALTH INTERNATIONAL NEWS