Safety Health and Environment - Women Work and Health
Improving working and living conditions for everyone is the focus of the BWI policies, campaigns, information and training on hazards. However, this gender-neutral focus does run the risk of being indifferent to, or overlooking, women’s occupational health.
In 2008, the Regional and International Women’s Committees have called for renewed efforts from the BWI Global Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Programme to develop specific materials, information and organising activities for women trade unionists in our sectors. So, welcome to the SHE webpage on Women Work and Health!
Scientists, employers, decision-makers and sometimes trade unions and even women themselves do not take women’s work-related health problems seriously. This is because of traditional perceptions of women’s work and the social invisibility of their labour. When we look at statistics on health and safety at work we see that men have about ten times more compensated industrial accidents than women. Women’s occupational health problems may be underestimated since many diseases and disorders are chronic and go unrecognised.
This has led to the widespread belief that women’s jobs are light, and safe compared to men’s and has held back efforts to improve women’s working conditions and occupational health.
Some hazards particularly affect women because of the kind of work they do, and because of gender segregation in the workplace. For example, many musculo-skeletal disorders (long term pain) are caused by intensive fast paced, repetitive, monotonous work, awkward postures, forceful movements of the hands and wrists, lack of breaks, poor and inappropriate equipment and work stations.
This characterises women’s work in the wood and manufacturing sector, where back, neck, shoulder, arm, wrist and hand problems are widespread, with damage to muscles, joints, tendons and nerves. These strain injuries are collective, occupational health problems. They are often ignored because the injuries are attributed to factors outside work, such as domestic work and childcare.
Other hazards are particularly relevant to women because of physiological differences between men and women, and particularly taking into account the reproductive health of women. For example, exposure to chemical products at work. Some commonly used substances can either affect fertility or can easily cross the placenta and affect the foetus directly, and some cause miscarriages or malformations. Cancer-causing substances are also mutagens. That means they damage our genetic material and can cause infertility or malformations in the foetus. Examples are pesticides used in timber treatments and organic solvents contained in varnishes, lacquers, paints and in most types of wood finishes.
Substances such as solvents and pesticides also affect the central nervous system and cause skin problems and respiratory problems as well as long-term damage to organs such as the liver and kidneys. Dermatitis is twice as common in women as in men, largely because of their greater exposure to solvents, detergents and water at work and at home. Women have more fat in their bodies than men, and chemical substances can be absorbed and stored in this fatty layer, so that women’s exposure is of greater intensity and duration.
Occupational limits for exposure to chemical substances are calculated for the “average” worker. That is a fit, healthy, young male. They are not health-based limits in any case, but they are dangerous levels of exposure for women.
Work Organisation and Women’s rights
Gender segregation at work undermines the effectiveness of health and safety policies. Women are more often in monotonous jobs with high productivity demands and little control over the content of the work. Poor working conditions cause stress, and stress causes a whole range of physical problems, from cardio -vascular disease to gastro -intestinal problems.
Demands for paid maternity leave and job protection, equal pay for work of equal value, policies to prevent sexual harassment all improve women’s working conditions and women’s occupational health. We can also use health and safety arguments to further support our campaigns for equal rights at work.
Women need to educate, agitate and organise in our sectors to prevent hazards and improve working conditions.