International Women’s day is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements (from political to the social), while calling for gender equality. Now it is recognized each year on this day, March 8.
Women make up 42% of the employed population in the EU (font: HSE) and the jobs they do, their working conditions and how they are treated by society can affect the hazards they face at work and the approach that needs to be taken to assess and control them.
First, gender specific differences in the workplace might reduce women’s well-being at work as a result of the lack of career prospects. Women in general, and older women specifically, are also exposed to different risks than their male counterparts throughout their working lives.
Actually, the impact of gender on both men’s and women’s occupational health and safety is under-researched and poorly understood. This kind of research requires an awareness of the extent of intra-sex variations and careful controls for biological and social characteristics which may affect health reaction.
Women’s occupations are different and multifaceted. Today, much of women’s work continue to be unrecognized, uncounted and unpaid: work in the home, in agriculture, food production and the marketing of home-made products. Women may undertake paid work at home, or combine part or full time paid work with household work and the care of children, the sick and the elderly.
The first problem is to learn what those activities really involve women in different situations and cultures: a simple occupational category is not acceptable as a basis for establishing specific health risk.
For example, agricultural workers may dig and hoe and apply fertilisers and pesticides, but not all the workers will perform all of those tasks and where the tasks are segregated by gender the health implications for men and women may be very different.
Successfully, Legislation to protect pregnant – or potentially pregnant workers – has been a universal response.
Although, where such legislation ignores potential reproductive hazards to male workers, it is not only scientifically unsound but fails to protect men while depriving women of an income.
An other problem is that some countries cannot enforce their protective legislation because of the realities of economic pressures. If other policies such as training criteria exclude women from learning to minimize the hazards they in fact face, women may paradoxically be at greater risk than if there had been no attempt to protect them.
Only when there is a fuller recognition of what work women actually do and in what circumstances, will it be possible to examine their health profiles in the context of occupation.
Unfortunately, often these gender differences are not took into consideration and not recognized in safety and health practice. Meanwhile employers could aim to make work safer and easier for everyone including gender issues in risk assessment. They could look at the real work done and avoid assumptions about who is at risk and why; offer flexibility in working hours and maybe, involve women in OSH decision-making.
This approach is beneficial for all employees, not just women.