Sweden: Higher risk of work-related injuries for women

Gender segregation in the Swedish labour market is partly to blame for women facing a higher risk of incurring repetitive strain injuries, according to the Swedish Work Environment Authority. The agency, commissioned by the government to develop ways of helping women avoid such problems, also found that employers often lack the knowledge required to prevent such injuries.

Background

In Sweden, women’s rate of absence from work due to illness is significantly higher than men’s. More women also retire early for health reasons, resulting in lower pensions. The government commissioned the Swedish Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket) to develop and implement specific interventions aimed at preventing women from being excluded from working life due to work-related problems. 

The initiative included the acquisition of knowledge, information distribution and the training of inspectors. The key findings on strain injuries, work organisation and employers’ knowledge (in Swedish, 560 KB PDF) were published in the project’s final report in 2015.

Key findings

Two research reviews were published as part of the project. One focused on men and women’s risks of incurring strain injuries. The other looked into the issue of gender and work organisation.

Strain injuries

The authors found that men and women often perform different tasks, even if they work in the same profession. This difference, also known as internal segregation, is presented as the most likely reason for disparities in occupational health. Horizontal segregation, where certain sectors employ significantly higher proportions of either women or men, is similarly problematic. In general, women tend to perform tasks that are more repetitive, which increases the risk of certain types of strain injury. A furtherproblem is that tools, protective equipment and workstations are often not adapted for women.

Nevertheless, whatever the type of segregation, women experience more arm and shoulder injuries. Lower back injuries tend to affect men and women more equally. But women also experience more psychosocial strain, particularly in healthcare occupations. Women are also more likely to feel that their work is steered by someone other than themselves and that they rarely have the opportunity to control their tasks, something the authors argue can be attributed to gender differences in occupations and tasks, rather than gender differences in sensitivity.

The authors point out that it is vital, therefore, to include a gender perspective in managing systematic work environments and to design tasks and equipment to suit both men and women. If there is an assumption that men and women always perform the same task the same way and experience the same types of strains, severe risks might go undetected.

Work organisation

One of the main findings of the second research review was that women experience a more fluid boundary between paid and unpaid work. (This subject has also been investigated by, among others, Härenstam et al in a 2000 report on gender differences in working and living conditions (in Swedish) and Mellner et al in a 2013 report on the segmentation and integration of men and women (in Swedish, 290 KB PDF). Difficulties in setting these boundaries means an increased risk of stress, which might be damaging in the long run.

The review also showed that research on occupational health from a gender perspective is fairly limited. The authors concluded that, to achieve continuous improvements and innovations in the working environment, it is important to identify and process the values and norms that prevail regarding beliefs and expectations about how women and men should work.

Employers’ knowledge found lacking

Another part of the research was to find out how employers look at the different working conditions of men and women. The purpose of the survey was to obtain benchmark measurements for selected target groups as a starting point for change. The survey was conducted through telephone interviews and focus groups made up of employers in various sectors. The questions focused partly on how employers view women’s and men’s differing conditions in the workplace, and on employers’ approaches to addressing the risk of repetitive strain in sectors where such injuries are common.

The results showed that lack of understanding and tradition are the biggest challenges when trying to balance the disparities between men's and women’s working conditions. The female-dominated sectors were found to be working more consciously to integrate men into the work organisation than male-dominated sectors worked to integrate women. And only a few sectors had explicit goals and schemes to give men and women equal opportunities in the allocation of tasks.

Social partner views

Eva Nordmark, Chair of the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees (TCO), welcomed the fact that the authority is highlighting the connection between women's health and work environment management (in Swedish). She said it is important that the deficiencies found in female-dominated work environments are taken seriously because in sectors such as healthcare and education, many employees experience an unhealthy workload.

Work environment expert Bodil Mellblom, of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, said it was unnecessary to spend more money on research into women’s work environments (in Swedish), as proposed by the government. She suggested that the focus should be on how to put the results of existing studies into practice. She added that the confederation would prefer a more long-term measure, such as a centre to coordinate competences already suggested by the social partners to the previous government.

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