Gender issues in health and safety at work

Gender differences in working conditions have to be taken into account in order to assess real occupational health risks and work-related accidents, and to develop strategies towards effective prevention.

A recent study, Gender issues in safety and health at work, carried out by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work underlines the importance of mainstreaming gender in research and measures on occupational health and safety. This issue has also been highlighted in the European Commission’s Community strategy on health and safety at work 2002-06 (pdf file) .

The report maintains that the current EU approach to safety and health is not suitable for dealing with work-related health and safety risks for women and men. This approach does not pay sufficient attention to the different employment conditions and the considerable horizontal and vertical gender segregation of the labour market. It concentrates rather on the situation of male workers. The report warns that taking a gender-neutral approach to occupational safety and health can contribute to maintaining gaps in knowledge and to less effective prevention.

Gender segregation of the workforce leads to gender differences in working conditions, and hence to differences in levels of exposure to hazards and health outcomes. In general, men suffer more from accidents and injuries at work.

Incidence of work-related accidents in the EU, ratio of men to women per 100,000, 1998
Work-related accidents - ratio of men to women
Sector Ratio of men to women
Agriculture 1.5
Manufacturing 2.3
Energy and water 6.7
Construction 3.3
Distribution 2.1
Hotels and restaurants 1.1
Transport, communication 2.2
Financial and business services 1.7
Total 2.2
Source: Gender issues in safety and health at work, based on Eurostat data (excludes NL)

Men are more affected by noise-induced hearing loss, breathing and lung problems, and heart disease. More women than men report health problems such as upper limb disorders, stress, asthma, allergies, skin diseases, and infectious diseases.

Types of illness, by gender

Occupational cancer is more common among men than women. Differences generally relate to the type of exposure but it is thought that insufficient information may mean that the incidence among women is underestimated.

It is essential to include both genders in research and analysis. Work-related ill-health and injuries that are relevant to women workers should be covered in statistical monitoring and research.

The report also points out that there is an unequal approach to reproductive health hazards, with an almost exclusive focus on women’s conditions especially around pregnancy and breastfeeding. Less attention is paid to potential risks to men’s sexuality and fertility, as well as other reproductive health disorders affecting women such as early menopause and menstrual problems.

The research reveals that specific EU directives are more likely to cover risks more commonly affecting men such as exposure to noise or chemicals, and to deal with male-dominated work areas, such as the construction sector. Risks that women are more often exposed to are not as well regulated. Additionally, many occupational health and safety standards and exposure limits to hazardous substances are based on male populations or laboratory tests, and relate more to men’s work areas.

The report advocates taking more careful account of the gender differences in working conditions, in order to:

  • assess the real rates of work-related accidents and ill health;
  • ascertain whether women or men are more vulnerable by exposure to certain work hazards;
  • develop strategies towards effective prevention.

A key recommendation of the report is to examine real work situations and to base any assessment of risk exposure on the actual jobs that women and men do rather than simply on job titles and descriptions.

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

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment