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International Women’s Day 2018: Ensuring safety and health of women at work

When it comes to the occupational safety and health (OSH) of women in the workplace, trends identified by EU-OSHA show risks and their implications for OSH management, as well as good practices to overcome them. These, which might have a stronger impact on older female employees in particular, will be influential in guiding policy and future research.


Gender specific differences between men and women in the workplace

One factor that can reduce women’s well-being at work is the lack of career prospects in the workplace, and a gap between genders in this respect. Hierarchical and horizontal gender segregation exist in the workplace and, therefore, women in general, and older women specifically, are exposed to different risks than their male counterparts throughout their working lives. 

Hierarchical segregation means that women’s career are often less mobile than men’s, and women tend to remain in lower-grade jobs. This means that they can be more likely to doing the same job for a longer period of time and doing repetitive work. Women in these positions also often have less control over their work — which is a psychosocial risk. Therefore, women’s often limited career prospects can have a negative impact on their safety and health at work. Those in low grades are more vulnerable to abuses of power in the form of bullying and sexual harassment.

Horizontal segregation, on the other hand, means that women and men tend to work in different sectors. For example, older women form a large part of the workforce in the health and social care sector, which puts them at risk of injury from lifting, as well as stress caused by emotional demands and risks of violence and harassment. Women are also over-represented in desk-based administrative work, which puts them at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders.

Sustainable work strategies need to target the sectors in which older women work. They also need to integrate issues relating to age and gender into risk assessments. Seeing diversity as a valuable resource, which companies increasingly do, will help to change attitudes in workplaces and in society more generally.

Age-related changes in women’s health

Europe’s workforce is ageing and longer working lives can mean longer exposure to hazards at work. Women live longer than men, however, they are also likely to live for longer in poor health. They are more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, which can cause disability and a greater risk of fractures resulting from slips in the workplace. Ergonomic measures, such as lifting aids often benefit younger workers too, helping to improve and extend their working lives.

Across Europe, there is a growing trend towards long-term absence from work and early retirement due to mental health problems. Women are particularly at risk because of the type of paid work they often do (e.g. in services such as retail or the hospitality sector, caring for people in education or health care, with little control and a lack of career progression) and their multiple roles (childcare, running a household, caring for elderly relatives). This needs to be addressed through proper assessment of occupational safety and health risks in the workplace.

Dangerous substances and women’s exposure and protection

There is a lack of data specifically on women’s exposure to dangerous substances, especially for women in service sectors such as healthcare or the hospitality sector. Although there is less information on exposures typical to their jobs, risk assessment and preventive measures need to take account of working women, including those in stereotypically ‘male’ sectors. It is also important that personal protective equipment fits women properly.

 This topic will be further explored in our forthcoming 2018-19 Campaign ‘Healthy Workplaces Manage Dangerous Substances’.

Current legislation on reproductive risks focuses mainly on women, particularly young women and the risks to pregnant and breastfeeding women. However, the legislation needs to protect women and men of all ages.

Increase of informal and temporary work among women

Informal work, for example domestic work or work in family businesses and family-run farms, is increasing generally, and particularly among women. This raises concerns for their safety and health at work, as informal jobs may to be insecure and without benefits, such as social or health insurance, or worker representation. Women in these jobs are at risk of harassment and violence, and their working times are often unfavourable.

Temporary jobs are also less secure and come with fewer benefits, and more women than men are on involuntary temporary contracts across all sectors. Women also more frequently work part-time and in all age groups the share of women in involuntary part-time employment exceeded that of men. The gender gap is widening with age. The nature of these jobs puts women at risk of stress, and they are less likely to take part in workplace safety and health consultations because they are temporary or part-time.

To sum up, shaping Europe’s future workforce by working towards gender equality at the workplace cannot be viewed separately from other discrimination issues in society. Also, especial consideration towards the double discrimination against older women is a key step in order to achieve this. There continues to be specific gender-related risks and issues that need to be looked at.  This results in the need to develop policies, actions and practices to address them.

See the ‘New risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work’ report and the ‘Women and the ageing workforce: implications for occupational safety and health’ research review

Find solutions in ‘Mainstreaming gender into occupational safety and health practice

Check out our women & OSH themed web section