hurt at work
Hazards factsheet 67
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 than
TUC's 1999 report, A woman's work is never safe, based on official
* Women are more exposed to repetitive and monotonous work and to
* Young women are more likely than men to be physically assaulted
at work; and
* Women are more likely than men to experience back strain, skin
diseases, headaches and eyestrain.
Health and Safety Executive's best available statistics, the 1995
Self-reported Work-related Illness (SWI) survey1, 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.
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.
Many factors have helped keep occupational health a "men only" issue,
from bad science, to prejudice, to the jobs we do. The two most
enduring myths are that men do all the risky work and that differences
in gender and not jobs explain some of the trends.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 workers2.
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."
to ILO: "In general terms there is no great difference between men's
and women's biological response to physical, biological or chemical
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."
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.
types of especially punishing jobs are almost entirely the preserve
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.
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."
example would be women airline attendants, "explicitly paid to manage
their own and the passengers' emotions, to prevent fear and create
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.
TUC gender agenda In a major union initiative, the TUC is
pressing for a "gender sensitive" approach to occupational
health and safety. It helped convince the Health and Safety
Commission to include social equality, including gender, in
its current three-year corporate plan, and is continuing to
press for better statistics, for HSE materials to reflect
better the presence of women in the workforce and for more
women on HSC committees.
At workplace level TUC want safety reps
* Survey women in their workplace to identify their views
on key safety problems;
* Compare findings with the existing workplace health and
* Review the company safety policy to ensure women's safety
concerns are covered;
* Check whether risks assessments cover the risks to women
* Decide whether their workplace needs a special action plan
on health and safety.
might think that lifting, standing, breathing poor, pressurised
air and exposure to cosmic radiation might be hazardous at
work. You might be believe doing this at several thousand
feet above ground when pregnant could add to the risk. Not
if you are United Airlines.
In its September 1999 opening day testimony to a London employment
tribunal United Airlines claimed "that no risk has been found
Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the union representing
three British flight attendants suspended without pay because
they were pregnant, said the tribunal "will determine whether
an American company can thumb its nose at maternity laws in
the UK Management Regulations (reg.13a), a risk assessment
must determine if a job presents a risk to a woman who is
pregnant, has just given birth or who is breast feeding (Hazards
63). Under no circumstances can a company stop paying a worker
who can no longer do her normal job because of pregnancy-related
risks. "It is ludicrous for United to claim that a flight
attendant's job isn't risky," said Kevin Creighan, president
of the AFA, which represents 900 UK workers. "Our job requires
heavy lifting, bending, twisting and pushing." The Employment
Tribunal found in favour of the women. United Airlines was
ordered to pay lost wages to the affected women.
Sources and resources
1. Self-reported working conditions in 1995: results from a household
survey, JR Jones, JT Hodgson and J Osman, HSE, 1998. HSE Books.
2. Emslie C and others. Gender differences in minor morbidity
among full time employees of a British university, Journal of Epidemiology
and Community Health, vol.53, pages 465-75, 1999.
Gender sensitive health and safety: Report of a TUC symposium
on research into women's health and safety. TUC, 1999. £25.00
(£5.00 trade unions).
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, TUC, 1998.
No more "men only" health and safety - what women want at work,
TUC survey of women safety reps, TUC, 1998. Details from TUC, Congress
Centre, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS. Tel: 0207 636 4030.
Fax: 0207 636 0632.
The TUC's safety website has a page on women's
health and safety
One-eyed science: occupational health and women workers,
Karen Messing, Temple University Press, ISBN 1-56639-598-4, 1998.
Very detailed, authoritative source showing how the hazards of women's
work are frequently under-estimated or totally ignored and how compensation
systems discriminate against women.
on occupational health and safety.
Details: ILO Office of the Special Adviser on Women Workers' Questions
(FEMMES). Tel: 00 41 22 799 6730. Fax: 00 41 22 799 6388.
gender in ergonomic analysis: Strategies for transforming women's
work, TUTB, ISBN 2-930003-33-2, 1999.
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,
Women's health and safety, UNISON women's health pack, 1999.
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,
Hazards factsheet no.63, Reproductive hazards at work: Women is
the most up-to-date guide, with detailed references. £3.00
subscribers; and £6.00 non-subscribers. From
Short guide: The effects of workplace hazards on female reproductive
health, NIOSH, February 1999. Ref: DHSS (NIOSH) Publication No.99-104.
Free from NIOSH Publications Dissemination, 4676 Columbia Parkway,
Cincinnati, OH 45226-1998, USA. Fax: 00 1 513 533 8573. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Womens' Environmental Network, PO Box 30626 London
E1 1TZ, UK. Tel: +44 (0)207 481 9004 Fax: +44 (0) 207 481 9144 Email:
Women Against Sexual Harassment (WaSH), 5th Floor, 4 Wild Court,
London WC2B 4AU. Advice line: 0207 405 0429. WaSH also produces
a series of excellent free leaflets on sexual harassment in the
Hazards factsheet no.62. Breast cancer and workplace exposures.
Comprehensive guide including detailed list of additional sources.
Working through the menopause, information and resource pack
for occupational health nurses. RCN, 1999. Details from RCN,
20 Cavendish Square, London W1M 0AB.
Women's Health. Resource and information centre providing guidance
on all aspects of women's health (not a specialist occupational
health agency). 52 Featherstone Street, London EC1Y 8RT. Health
enquiry line: 0207 251 6580.