Women more at risk of musculoskeletal disorders

Occupational risks such as intense physical effort, noise, exposure to chemicals and hard weather conditions are most frequently associated with men’s work. However, recent survey analysis shows that women are in the front line regarding risks associated with organisational strain or psychosocial factors such as repetitive work, high demands, low control and low social support. Overall, women represent 58% of recorded cases of work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

In 2008, the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, INSEE) has carried out a gender analysis regarding occupational risk exposure. The study was based on the results of the Medical monitoring of risks (Surveillance Médicale des Risques, SUMER) survey conducted in 2003.

Different risks in different occupations

Men are more exposed to physical demands specifically associated with industrial work, such as noise, extreme temperatures, work on vibrating tools and exposure to chemical products. These risks result for a large part from the structure of employment: only 11% of women work in industry.

However, women represent a significant proportion of workers in certain occupations which are characterised by specific strain features. For example, they constitute 75% of workers in the intermediate occupations of health and social activities, where work implies standing for long periods of time, heavy loads, tiring postures, handling chemical and biological products, unsocial working times, contact with the public and emotionally demanding situations. Despite this job profile, nurses’ work has long been considered as risk-free for health.

Due to the concentration of women in some services sectors and in part-time jobs, they are less exposed than men to long working hours and night work shifts. However, they are also less likely to get a 48-hour break in a week, and their working day is more frequently split into two periods with a long interruption in the middle.

Organisational strain

In terms of pace of work, men are more frequently dependent on the automatic pace of a machine (10%) or on a colleague (32%) than women are (8% and 29% respectively). Nevertheless, women’s work pace is more problematic: 61% have to respond to an external demand without delay and to interrupt their tasks for another one (compared with 50% and 56% respectively for men). Furthermore, in all occupations – except in the group of managers and professionals – women report experiencing higher psychological demands than men do; such demands are defined in Robert Karasek’s job demands–control model and his Job Content Questionnaire. Women also report less job control than men in all occupations, except the group of clerks, and less social support in the two groups of high-skilled white-collar and low-skilled blue-collar workers.

Although women are less affected by occupational cancers, they are more subject to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), representing 58% of the recorded cases of work-related MSD. A composite indicator of MSD exposure, based on data from the survey related to specific biomechanical factors, organisational strain and psychosocial factors, indicates that women are concentrated in administrative activities, which present a relatively lower level of risk. However, in all occupations, women are more exposed to MSD risk factors than their male counterparts. When neutralising other dimensions, such as age, tenure, company size and occupation, women have a 22% greater chance of being exposed to the risk of MSD than men have.

Different work in the same occupation

In each single group of occupations, the work performed and the work organisation frequently differ between men and women. For instance, in abattoirs, men cut the carcasses with a chainsaw while women cut chicken fillets with a knife. Some 42% of the latter carry out repetitive movements with a cycle of less than one minute, compared with 27% of men. In the whole population of blue-collar workers, women are twice as exposed to repetitive movements as men are. In all occupations, women present specific risk factors compared with men – the most frequent being repetitive movements and visual strain caused by working on a screen for a long time.

Comparable results

These results from the SUMER national survey of 2003 are very close to those produced by the epidemiological monitoring of MSD carried out by the governmental French Institute for Health Surveillance (Institut de veille sanitaire, InVS) in the Loire region on a representative population sample of 2,685 workers. The latter results were published in the Bulletin Epidémiologique Hebdomadaire No. 44–45, 15 November 2005 (256Kb PDF).

The InVS monitoring shows a much higher prevalence of MSD symptoms affecting the neck, shoulder, elbow and wrist, and a higher prevalence of diagnosed MSD for women (25.7%) compared with men (21.5%). The results also confirm the higher exposure of women to repetitive work and a low level of control.

Source and further information

Guignon, N., ‘Risques professionnels : les femmes sont-elles à l’abri ?’, in Femmes et hommes – Regards sur la parité, Paris, INSEE, 2008 (based on results of the SUMER Survey 2003).

More information (in French) is available on the SUMER survey. Recent articles based on secondary analysis of this survey concern the occupational groups most at risk of job strain (FR0704029I) and the effects of contact with the public (FR0706019I).

Anne-Marie Nicot, ANACT

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