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Women under strain


Women's work, women's burden

From Europe under strain: A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal disorders

Men do heavy, dangerous work, women do light, safe work - so it's men that are at risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The European Foundation's 1996 European Union-wide survey found that women were more likely than men to undertake repetitive tasks or repetitive work and were more likely to have difficulty taking breaks, days off or holidays.

US figures showed a similar trend and revealed that women were suffering because of the arduous, repetitive jobs they did. In the case of carpal tunnel syndrome, which caused more days away from work per case than any other workplace injury or illness, "more women sustained carpal tunnel syndrome by operating machinery, on assembly lines, and tending retail stores than they did typing, keying, and performing other duties associated with office workers."

In Poland the effect, revealed by official figures for 1996, is more dramatic still. The statistics, broken down by gender, show reports of strain injuries - classified as "Chronic motor disorders caused by the way work is carried out, excessive stress" - were 43 per cent more common in women, at 3.3 cases per 100,000 employees compared to 2.3 for men."

This does not indicate that women are more susceptible to developing strains, however. A study of gender differences in RSI in Manitoba, using workers' compensation data, found the rate was only marginally higher in women than men. The authors conclude: "The greater variation in rates found among industries and occupations than between genders within occupation or industry suggest that the type of work one performs has a greater influence on the likelihood of developing an RSI than does one's gender."

In a 1994 submission to the Ontario Industrial Disease Standards Panel, researcher Dr Karen Messing of the University of Quebec, Montreal, commented: "A specific problem arises in the repetitive work so common in women's jobs in factories and offices. In jobs assigned to women (as well as some assigned to men), the work cycle is under ten seconds long and the same movements are repeated many thousands of times in a day.

"These movements can individually make trivial demands on the human body, but the enormous degree of repetition makes tiny details of the set-up of primary importance. A chair the wrong height or a counter the wrong width may cause constant over-solicitation of the same tendons or joints, yet the observer sees no problem."

She adds that gender assumptions can lead to an under-estimation of the real risk women face. "Several problems come up in regard to gender in the context of musculoskeletal problems. First is the widespread tendency to adjust for gender. If gender is a proxy for exposure status, adjusting for gender would tend systematically to under-estimate risks in jobs primarily held by women, for example those which are most highly repetitive. All the studies of carpal tunnel syndrome cited in a major review article are adjusted for gender, even though it has been shown that gender is not related to carpal tunnel syndrome if anthropometric measurements related to wrist anatomy and physiology are taken into account.

"Adjusting would be appropriate only if gender were an independent determinant of carpal tunnel syndrome, for example for hormonal reasons, rather than a determinant of job content or of inadequate job engineering. One study in the poultry processing industry in France found that women reported much more often then men that their work-site was ill-adjusted to their size. If this result was reproducible, it would provide an alternative explanation for excess repetitive strain injury among women."


Women's survey shows more risks equal more strains

From: Europe under strain: A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal disorders

Union research started in Milan, Italy, in April 1996 suggests women get more strains because women get more jobs with a strain injury risk.

Trades unionists from CGIL-CISL-UIL, female doctors and technicians and labour inspectorate medical advisers joined forces with a CEMOC, a Milan-based ergonomics research body, to determine what causes work strains, still considered by many in Italy - researchers, medics, employers and trade unions - to be a relatively rare condition.

Nine companies were selected for the study - two industrial laundries, two food factories, two engineering factories, one toy factory and two clerical companies. Although both men and women were employed in these workplaces, the research team quickly realised a gender-based division of labour had resulting in women facing almost all the strain injuries risk. Some had already sought compensation.

At the start of the research programme, workers' reps were trained how to recognise risky jobs and strain injuries themselves. They were also advised on how to collect and record survey data. Two questionnaires were used in the research, one to identify problem jobs and one to identify health symptoms.

In only one case did the employer stop the workers' rep from undertaking survey work in working time.

The survey confirmed a high strain injury risk in the workplaces and many workers suffering work-related strains.

The findings led to meetings and seminars, together with a call to address the causes of the strains. Particular attention was given to work organisation changes, the law, working time and the gender segregation of work.

Unions are now pressing for better medical support for affected workers. In a bid to dismantled dangerous job segregation, the unions are also seeking detailed annual reports to equal opportunities committees on who does what job in the workplace and where.

Information: Marina Finardi, CISL.
Email: cisl@mi.nettuno.it


Women risky jobs

From: Europe under strain: A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal disorders

The risks you are exposed to and the nature of your work can be heavily influenced by your gender.

A French Ministry of Labour, 1994 survey concluded: "Globally, 3.4 million are the exposed to musculoskeletal disorders, that is 28 per cent of the labour force. Of these, 13 per cent repeat the same movement at high speed, eight per cent are exposed habitually to forced postures and seven per cent to both. Globally, female workers are the most exposed to constrained movement, and especially the unskilled in industry (75 per cent of the exposed group)."

The study found that in 1994, 49 per cent of workers - 45.8 per cent of males and 63.2 per cent of females - were exposed to musculoskeletal constraints. Of these: 42.4 per cent of women, almost two-thirds (60.3 per cent) for in excess of 20 hours per week, were exposed to repetitive movements; 5.8 per cent to forced postures, 30.5 per cent for 20 hours plus; and 15 per cent to both.

The figures for men were significantly lower at 17.3 per cent were exposed to repetitive movements (40.9 per cent for 20 hours plus), 15.5 to forced postures (18.6 for 20 hours plus) and 13.0 to both.

The highest risk industries were leather and clothing industry, followed by food and agriculture, textiles and wood and paper, all with a high concentration of unskilled workers. Women were most likely to be in the high risk jobs for strains.

66 per cent of unskilled female workers in the food and agro industries and 58 per cent in the clothing industry were found to repeat the same movements at high speed. The retail sector was high risk too: 45 per cent of cashiers scan around 20 objects per minute and handle potentially damaging individual and cumulative loads, with 20 per cent of items as heavy as 1-7 kg.

Men faced a high risk from forced postures - 15.5 per cent compared to 5.8 per cent for women workers - but tended not to face exposures of the same duration, with just 18.6 per cent exposed to these risks for more than 20 hours a week.


Women's lot of hazards

From Europe under strain: A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal disorders

Stress, strains and violence at work are more likely to affect women than men, a 1998 survey of workplace union reps by the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) revealed. It concluded that almost 9 out of ten women now suffer work stress and over half workplace strains.

Commenting on the survey, TUC general secretary John Monks said: "This survey shows that women at work face a more hostile environment, because the work they do is often under-valued. And because the jobs they do are under-valued, so are the risks they face. The TUC's findings should put an end to 'men only' health and safety."

The survey of 700 safety reps showed that women workers were more likely to suffer stress (88 per cent compared to 77 per cent of the workforce as a whole), repetitive strain injuries (53 per cent compared to 37 per cent) and violence at work (36 per cent compared to 28 per cent).

Particular problems for working women were strains in manufacturing (81 per cent) and manual handling in the health service (86 per cent).

Responding to the survey, the TUC said it will:

* Build a special focus on women's concerns into forthcoming TUC campaigns on musculoskeletal disorders (back pain and RSI) and violence at work;
* Press the Health and Safety Executive to develop an action programme on women's health and safety; and
* Produce guidance for safety reps on how to build women's concerns into health and safety policies and risk assessments.

No more 'men only' health and safety. TUC Publications, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS, England. Tel: +44 171 636 4030.


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Women under strain

Four excerpts from Europe under strain: A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal disorders

Womens' work, women's burden

More risks equal more strains

Women risky jobs

Women's lot of hazards


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