Preventing Work-related Injuries: Health Hazards

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What's different about women's work?

Women tend to do different jobs and face different workplace hazards than men. The 10 most common jobs for women in Canada in 2006 were:

  • Retail salespersons and sales clerks 
  • Cashiers
  • Registered nurses
  • General office clerks
  • Secretaries (except legal and medical)
  • Elementary school and kindergarten teachers
  • Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related occupations
  • Early childhood educators and assistants
  • Food and beverage servers
  • Light duty cleaners 

Even when women have the same job titles as men, their specific tasks are often different (eg. cleaners, bank tellers and health care workers). With the physical differences between average men and average women - such as size, shape, centre of gravity, upper body strength, reproductive systems and how pain is dealt with -- women may react differently than men to similar tasks.

Jobs more common to women are usually more repetitive, monotonous and stressful than men's jobs. Women are more likely than men to have back strain, skin conditions, headaches and eyestrain.

Caring, nurturing and supportive roles are key parts of women's work, while men still tend to do "heavy" manual, technical and managerial tasks. Risks of violence also seem to be more common in women's jobs.

What "invisible" hazards do women face?

Women's work-related health and safety problems often come from a mixture of hazards, some of which are invisible. This makes it more difficult to track down a cause.

Stresses from poor working conditions are an important hazard. Around the world, women still are paid less for work of equal value and tend to work part-time more often than men. Canadian women also do more house and childcare work than men. On average, women who work full-time have a much greater total workload than do men.

With responsibilities at work and outside, women can face long stressful days. When combined with factors common in women's work -- monotonous jobs with a lack of control and little decision-making power -- it's not surprising that women are more vulnerable than men to stress-related illness, musculoskeletal problems (aches and pains) and chronic fatigue.

What other hazards are there in women's work?

We know less about women's workplace hazards than about men's. Men's jobs usually are the focus of studies.

Examples of possible hazards to women are:

  • chemical and mineral: dusts, vapours, fumes, gases, mists, liquids such as cleaning solvents;
  • communicable/biological: viruses, blood-borne diseases, sharps/needlesticks, bacteria, moulds in health care and other work;
  • safety: tripping hazards, traumatic injuries, housekeeping injuries, slips and falls, moving equipment/parts;
  • ergonomic design: repetition, posture, force (pushing/pulling), vibration, pressure on the body, work organization (poorly designed work procedures and tasks), work environment;
  • physical: noise, temperature and humidity, radiation, vibration, electricity, lighting; and
  • work organization or psychosocial stressors: low/high workload demands, pace/intensity, lack of training, hours of work, little or no control over what you have to do or how you do it, no social support/relations, harassment and/or discrimination or physical or mental threats of violence, no flexibility for time off.

How can women avoid these hazards?

By law, employers must provide healthy and safe work for everyone in their workplace. (They must do this whether or not women are “regular” or temporary/contract/agency employees.) Employers are in the best position to make necessary changes to prevent injuries and illnesses. But sometimes individual workers and/or their unions must argue for changes.

For the rising number of women who are self-employed, the responsibility rests on the women themselves to ensure their workspace is set up to avoid work-related injuries and illnesses. (Manitoba’s health and safety law covers self-employed people; this matters when they are in a workplace other than their usual workspace.)

It is also important to be good to yourself at and away from work. We may have some control about what we eat, exercise, and our social activities.

The best way to avoid injuries and illnesses is to prevent women from coming in contact with workplace hazards. There are many workplace programs and good practices to deal with general and specific hazards. For women, the first step in this process may be to recognise women's job-related health and safety issues, which often seem to be invisible, and take them seriously.

Reproductive health problems don't only affect women, although they are sometimes treated that way. For these hazards, it is generally accepted that the best solution is to take actions to protect a foetus or prevent reproductive health problems in women and men. In Quebec, pregnant and nursing women may, by law, be reassigned to less hazardous work or take "preventive leave." The federal government offers a similar program; a few provinces offer some protection (e.g., Manitoba).

What other ways can women prevent workplace injuries?

Workplace hazard maps (see resources below) are a useful tool for safety and health committees. They can be adapted so men and women make separate plastic layers on top of a drawing of the workplace layout to compare experiences in the same space, and make women's experiences, in particular, visible.

Where can I go for more information?

Revised June 2013.