Health and safety seminar raises the issue of a gender perspective

A seminar organised by the European Trade Union Confederation in May 1998 sought to highlight the fact that the hazards involved in jobs commonly done by women often go unrecognised, because the current concept of health and safety is still based on the model of male industrial workers and the hazards they face. The event also aimed to show that the sexual division of labour plays a part in hindering the development of a more effective approach to prevention and rehabilitation.

A number of recent reports have highlighted the persistence of horizontal and vertical job segregation along gender lines. Men continue to occupy the majority of managerial positions while women can largely be found in clerical, caring and menial industrial jobs. Women are also far more likely to occupy precarious employment situations such as part-time, temporary and fixed-term work. All these factors contribute to a persistent pay gap between the sexes (EU9801176F)

It is not insignificant that the work that men do is often more highly remunerated because it is considered to be more dangerous. A seminar organised by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) on 6 May 1998 on the question of "Health and safety - is there a gender perspective?" sought to highlight the fact that the hazards involved in jobs commonly done by women often go unrecognised because the current concept of health and safety continues to be based on the model of a male industrial worker and the hazards facing them in their working environment. It also aimed to show that the sexual division of labour can be seen to contribute to hindering the development of a more effective approach to prevention and rehabilitation.

The event, which was attended by around 20 equality and health and safety representatives from industry federations and trade unions across the European Union, was dedicated to raising awareness of the issue of women's health and safety at the workplace, and the exchange of information on research and initiatives undertaken in this area.


The past few decades have seen a significant increase in the number of women entering employment, and they now make up 42% of the total EU working population. Nevertheless, strong horizontal and vertical job segregation continues to be prevalent, with women concentrated in certain sectors and occupations which tend to be lower skilled and lower paid. They are particularly to be found in the service sector, clerical jobs and caring jobs. Women also make up 48% of all temporary and fixed-term employees across the Union and 84% of part-time employees, according to recent figures published by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Second European survey on working conditions, 1996). Women were found to occupy only 30% of managerial positions, and these tended to be in lower and middle management in the public sector.

According to the European Foundation study, women's working conditions can be characterised as follows: while they suffer less exposure from traditional risk factors such as noise, vibration, biological and chemical agents, they were found to have far more hectic work situations, often labouring under significant time pressure and with little control over their tasks. As women are far more likely to work in close contact with clients, they were found to be more likely to be exposed to physical violence. Additional stress factors were seen to be the lack of autonomy over managing their own time and the lack of training characterising women's jobs.

Changes in the labour force, which have occurred over the last decade, are also seen to have led to increasing risk and stress factors, particularly for women. The increasing precariousness of employment, high unemployment and the move from a manufacturing to a service economy have produced new health and safety problems and challenges, which are currently insufficiently recognised by legislation covering the working environment and worker compensation. The European Foundation study indicated that: 30% of workers were complaining of backache; 28% declared themselves to suffer from stress; 20% regularly felt fatigued; 17% complained of muscular pains; and 10% regularly reported suffering from headaches brought on by work-related stress.

Despite these changes in the economy and the working environment, health and safety legislation and regulations covering worker compensation continue almost exclusively to recognise hazards and injuries related to the "traditional", mono-causal risks mentioned above, which are primarily present in working environments traditionally occupied by men.

Official statistics therefore appear to show men facing much greater health and safety risks. With almost 80%, men are far more likely to be involved in accidents at work, and 93% of fatal work-related accidents involve men (EU9804199N). However, figures from Canada presented at the seminar, which pointed to studies of death certificate classifications and showed that women's death certificates were far more likely to be wrongly classified as unrelated to work, provide some food for thought.

Invisibility hurts

Despite being primarily based on the experience of research carried out in Canada, the case studies presented at the seminar by Karen Messing (professor at the Centre for the study of biological interactions between health and the environment at Quebec University, Montreal), provide some important insights and lessons for the European Union. The findings were based on a study carried out in a cooperation between Quebec University and the three main trade union organisations in Quebec on "combining the fight for equal rights with the fight for health and safety at work" (the study is summarised in an article from the European Trade Union Technical Bureau for Health and Safety, Brussels, which will publish the full article in autumn 1998) .

The study sought to address the lack of information about the specific features of women's work, which made it difficult to assess the risk factors involved and to address more effectively the issues of prevention and rehabilitation. A search of the literature found that very little was known about the health risks facing female sales staff, hairdressers, cleaners, waiting staff and cooks, although their working conditions are obviously likely to cause a variety of problems related to prolonged standing, exposure to heat and cold, the rapid pace of work, the lifting of heavy loads and the use of chemical products. Below, we summarise the findings of the Canadian study in the areas of physical, biological/chemical and psychological risks.

Physical risks facing women workers

In occupations in, for example, construction or mining there is a strong awareness of the risks facing workers (mainly men) because of stresses on the musculoskeletal system. Tasks carried out often require intense but brief effort. At the same time, however, little attention is accorded to the tasks carried out by women, for example in manufacturing and services, which require the performance of repetitive tasks associated with stressful positions or rapid repetitive movements. These are likely to cause work-related musculoskeletal problems if carried out over a prolonged period of time. The physical, as well as psychological effects of such repetitive tasks are only slowly becoming recognised. An ergonomic analysis of the work carried out by "seamstresses" showed that such employees were each effectively exerting a force of more than 2,850 kilos with their arms and 29,648 kilos with their legs in one working day. While light in terms of energy expended per movement, this work was shown to become heavy in relation to demands made on bones and joints.

Similarly, a case study carried out among hospital cleaners showed that the "light cleaning" assigned to women (dusting, cleaning toilets etc), as opposed to the "heavy cleaning" assigned to men (operating heavy cleaning equipment, mopping etc) was actually more demanding in terms of the need to work in stressful positions (such as bending) and so on. It was found that the sexual division of labour actually aggravated health and safety risks, as male and female staff were often found to argue over who should carry out certain tasks and whose tasks were more demanding, rather than questioning whether anyone should be carrying out these tasks without mechanical aids.

Exposure to biological and chemical agents

Despite the obvious dangers from biological agents associated with - for example - hospital and laboratory work, little research has been done in this area and risks are often not recognised. Chemical agents pose a serious hazard to cleaners, hospital staff and hairdressers, all occupations dominated by female staff. Dermatitis and cancer are among the most common occupational illnesses related to these agents. Nevertheless, they continue to go unrecognised. Risks from exposure to chemical agents is often increased because of the double exposure suffered by women using such agents at work as well as in their household tasks.

Psychological hazards

Evidence from Canada indicates the threats to mental health involved in other occupations traditionally dominated by women, such as teaching. Figures show that while the mental and physical health of teachers is among the best at age 25, their mental health status is among the worst 15-20 years later. Adverse psychological affects are also associated with repetitive work tasks, as well as a lack of control over one's own work and working environment. Stress was also found to be related to schedules which clashed with family responsibilities. The increasing use of flexible scheduling in many jobs dominated by women was seen to affect women's health adversely, highlighting the fact that the persistent dual pressure exerted by the need to reconcile work and family life often goes unnoticed.

One of the main differences between the health and safety hazards facing men and women is that the work-related illnesses facing women are often the result of a longer-term degenerative process. They are also more likely to be multi-causal and therefore more difficult to establish for the purposes of compensation.


The discussion at the seminar showed that while trade unions in some sectors have access to more information relating the health and safety risks facing women at work, and are more active in raising and addressing this issue than others, this field continues to attract only limited attention beyond the remit of the protection of pregnant women. This is partly due to the absence of official recognition, legislation and the availability of compensation in this area. Within most trade unions, the tasks of equality officer and health and safety officer remain distinct and it is telling that most equality officers are female while most health and safety officers are male.

Clearly, this issue of health and safety has to be perceived beyond the narrow confines of work risks related to hazards such as noise, biological and chemical agents. The areas of the reconciliation of work and family life, the organisation of working hours and work tasks are equally of key importance from the point of view of understanding and addressing risk factors.

More research into the risk factors facing women at work, and the interface between work and the family is clearly required to understand the problems and to develop an informed, multi-faceted policy response. Studies such as those presented at the ETUC seminar can go a long way towards making these risks more visible. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research & Consulting)

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment