Women's health and safety at work - a guide for union reps (September 2018)



[pages 3-5]

The UK’s 15 million working women now make up around half the workforce. But the risks they face at work are often described as hidden or invisible, and “women’s work” is sometimes seen as safer. There are a number of reasons for this.

The UK labour market remains highly segregated on gender lines, with male and female-dominated occupations and sectors. For example, the charity Close the Gap, which works in Scotland on women’s participation in the labour market, found that around 80% of administrative and secretarial workers and those in personal service jobs are women. So too are 97% of childcare and early years education workers. In contrast, it found that less than three per cent of chartered civil engineers in Scotland are women. Women also account for just two per cent of construction apprentices, compared with 97% of childcare apprentices and 93% of hairdressing apprentices. At the 2018 Women’s TUC conference, train drivers’ union ASLEF reported that there were just 27 women freight train drivers in the whole of the UK.

Men still tend to predominate in more visibly heavy and dangerous work, such as construction, which has higher incidences of injuries from one-off events, while women still tend to work in areas in which work-related illness arises from less visible, long-term exposures to harm.

Male workers are more likely to be exposed to workplace incidents resulting in injury and more likely to suffer health problems as a result of exposure to physical agents such as noise, which can be linked directly to a single cause. The illnesses and injuries women workers suffer are less likely to be linked directly to a single cause and therefore it can be more difficult for women to gain recognition that their conditions are work-related.

They are generally exposed to repetitive work and stressful conditions and more likely to experience skin diseases, headaches, eye strain and some types of musculoskeletal disorders.

A good example of this is the largely female beauty and hairdressing workforce. The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) recently published a special report, All that glitters is not gold: the dark side of the beauty industry.

This states that beauty professionals are rarely seen as workers who face health and safety risks. However, it says there are few who do not suffer from musculoskeletal problems, while the “daily use of cosmetic products containing chemical substances that are allergenic or irritate the skin causes other health problems that often force employees to give up their chosen profession prematurely”.

All that glitters is not gold: the dark side of the beauty industry: https://www.etui.org/Topics/Health-Safety-working-conditions/HesaMag

Even where men and women are working within the same workplace, with the same job titles and doing the same tasks, they can face different risks because of different demands, exposures and effects.

For example, one study found that, because children interacted differently with men and women, female nursery workers lifted children more often than their male colleagues. “Men and women have different physical, physiological and psychological differences that can determine how risk affects them,” the TUC explains. “Women are also the ones who give birth, and in most cases, look after children or assume other family caring responsibilities.”

Men work longer paid hours than women and women are more likely than men to work part time. However, working women tend to have greater domestic and caring responsibilities. When paid work, travelling time and unpaid work is added together, one study found the average weekly working time of European women was 64 hours compared to 53.4 hours for men. The main difference lies in unpaid work. In the UK, for example, research carried out in 2016 found that women do around 14 hours of housework a week, compared with six hours undertaken by men. The “double jeopardy” of domestic work, which the TUC explains can mean a second shift of lifting, responsibility and chemicals, topping up those experienced all day at work, is rarely studied.

In addition, traditionally, less attention has been given to the health and safety needs of women workers. The historic focus of health and safety law and occupational health and safety research has tended to be on male-dominated occupations, while safety standards and workplace expectations have been based on a “standard” male worker. For women workers, the historic focus has been on prohibiting pregnant workers from certain types of work or exposures, while there has been an assumption that the kind of work that women generally do is safer.

For all these reasons, unions advocate taking a “gender-sensitive” approach to health and safety in order to improve conditions for both women workers and their male colleagues.

Where these differences are acknowledged when assessing risks and deciding suitable risk control solutions, the TUC says, there is a greater chance of ensuring that the health and safety and welfare of all workers is protected.

For example, men also come in various shapes and sizes and may experience similar problems with ill-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE), and they are often less likely to seek help for an occupational illness, particularly depression or anxiety caused by workplace stress.

Addressing all hazards in a gender-sensitive way will also include transgender men and transgender women and people with other gender identities, says the TUC. It advises safety reps to make sure that bullying and harassment policies consider trans issues, for example, and that a risk assessment is included as part of transitioning arrangements.

Women’s health and safety at work sets out the hidden hazards of women’s work and explains why taking a gender-sensitive approach to occupational safety and health (GOSH) is important.

It examines the impact of: occupational segregation in the labour market; the “double-day” carried out by many women workers; the focus of health and safety law and occupational health and safety research on male-dominated occupations; and safety standards and workplace expectations based on a “standard” male worker.

It also looks at women’s (and men’s) reproductive health at work and how workplace hazards and risks particularly affect women workers. The booklet is organised as follows:

• Chapter 1: looks at why a gender-sensitive approach to occupational safety and health is important;

• Chapter 2: examines women’s working time — including the impact of working a “double-day” — and increasing concern about a possible link between night work and breast cancer;

• Chapter 3: considers the psychosocial risks faced by women workers focusing on stress and mental health; bullying; harassment; and violence, including domestic violence;

• Chapter 4: looks at musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive strain injuries (RSI);

• Chapter 5: covers women’s exposure to hazardous substances and physical hazards at work;

• Chapter 6: examines the problems women workers face when using work equipment, PPE and workwear designed for men and where employers impose discriminatory dress codes, including wearing high-heeled shoes; and

• Chapter 7: discusses women’s reproductive health at work, including pregnancy and maternity, menstruation and the menopause.

Throughout the booklet there are references to TUC and trade union information, advice and guidance; trade union safety campaigns focusing on women’s health and safety; examples of model workplace agreements and improvements won through collective bargaining. It also includes references to Labour Research Department (LRD) booklets which contain more in-depth guidance on areas including health and safety law, stress, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment and violence.

The booklet is being published shortly before the 40th anniversary of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977. The regulations came into force on 1 October 2018 and gave trade union safety representatives legal rights to improve health and safety in the workplace for the first time. It makes clear the vital role of trade union safety reps in tackling the risks and hazards faced by women workers and their male colleagues.

This information is copyright to the Labour Research Department (LRD) and may not be reproduced without the permission of the LRD.