Hazards Faced by Female Workers
The same but different
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) points out that women make up 42% of the employed population in the EU. However, the safety watchdog has warned that the jobs women 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 those hazards.
The HSE advises that in assessing the risks which female workers face in the workplace, employers should take into account the fact that women and men are concentrated in certain jobs, and therefore face hazards particular to those jobs. In addition, the HSE says, women and men face different risks to their reproductive health.
In general the impact of gender on both men’s and women’s occupational health and safety is generally under-researched and poorly understood.
Also men and women in the same sectors, carrying out the same roles and tasks, can experience different demands. For example, it is shown that female nurses tend to have more people-facing tasks than their male colleagues.
The HSE also warns that there is a perception that the risks associated with female-dominated industries are taken less seriously than those in male-dominated industries. Especially as women are likely to be under-represented in the health and safety decision-making process.
A source at the HSE said of female workers, “Their views and experience of female-specific health and safety issues are often marginalised, underestimated or overlooked” and “research studies tend to exclude or ignore women”.
Signs of progress — safety gear
Despite this rather gloomy scenario, it is clear that the UK’s health and safety profession is making progress in considering the needs of women as a group distinct from male workers. One of the first and most influential initiatives in this regard was that spearheaded by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which over a number of years has conducted extensive research on safety clothing and footwear.
The results of the WES research highlighted a lack of availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) clothing specifically designed for women. It and concluded that women’s PPE is often uncomfortable and not fit for purpose, e.g. often “women’s” sizes were just smaller version of the design for men.
Women who were interviewed for the study cited many examples of where poor fit and design compromised their safety. One woman said, “Oversized gloves make it difficult to work safely or accurately”, while another reported that her ill-fitting boots caused her to stumble on site.
WES has raised concerns that these issues could be one of the reasons for the under-representation of women in the UK engineering and construction industry. In response, the Society partnered with Dunlop Safety to design and retail a new range of safety boots for women with a high comfort factor and the survey is credited with raising awareness of the suitability of PPE for women.
Increasingly, innovative employers are taking real action on the issue of women’s occupational health and safety. In December 2015, Transport for London (TfL) launched its first range of safety clothing designed specifically for women, as part of its commitment to supporting an increasingly diverse workforce. The new range of women’s PPE was created for TfL staff following a successful six-week trial and includes a wider selection of high-visibility jackets, trousers, gloves and adjustable eye protection.
Improving ergonomics for women
Greggs plc, one of the largest retail bakeries in the UK employing 19,000 staff in 1487 shops, is an example of another employer which has achieved excellent outcomes by considering the health of safety of female workers, this time in the ergonomics sphere.
As a result of expansion and taking over various premises, Greggs had acquired existing equipment and machinery but found some of this was not only outdated, but in some cases was not designed with basic ergonomic principles in mind. The company wanted to ensure that the standards of equipment and machinery were consistent across all its sites and also aimed to reduce the risk of upper limb disorders to its predominantly female workers. Ergonomists made use of a female manikin to approximate the reach capabilities of females of average stature.
The equipment was then updated to make it suitable for its predominantly female workforce and Greggs now says that it has “very few issues” with repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) in its retail bakeries. Its processes have not only become safer and healthier but business benefits have also stemmed from the change, with tasks being performed more efficiently.
Welfare, and psychosocial and other considerations
Another example of excellence in considering the health and safety of women is that of the UK’s Olympic Delivery Authority via its Women into Construction project. The project focused on a health and safety standard that would create a “woman-friendly site,” ensuring for example that “horseplay” on site was avoided and urination other than in the provided toilets was prohibited. There was also a strong focus on psychosocial issues for women, ensuring there was no aggressive or violent behaviour, sexual harassment or bullying.
In addition, welfare facilities were designed to adequately meet the needs of women working on the Olympic site, making sure that there were sufficient quantity of female WCs and washbasins, as well as suitable sanitary disposal units and where provided, separate shower facilities.
In general, the provision of male and female toilet facilities can be seen as a positive step in workplace health and safety gender sensitivity. For many years, the International Transport Federation (ITF) has run a campaign for toilet facilities for female transport workers after women bus workers in Bristol raised the issue of their lack of facilities. Among other changes, the campaign led to negotiations at the port of Folkestone, where the harbour master subsequently announced the opening of a women’s toilet for female truck drivers. Previously, only men had been catered for.
The TUC has an ongoing campaign which urges employers to do more to support female workers going through the menopause, including by means of adequate welfare facilities. The TUC has published a leaflet entitled Supporting Women through the Menopause, which outlines how poor working conditions, such as inadequate or non-existent rest or toilet facilities, or a lack of access to cold drinking water at work can make women’s symptoms worse.
Other issues to consider in the context of women’s occupational health and safety relate to new and expectant mothers. Both this service and the HSE publish a wide range of information on how to safeguard the health and safety of new and expectant mothers in the workplace, including with regard to key legislation and risk assessments for this group of workers.
It is clear that understanding the impact of differences between men and women can drive important improvements in occupational health and safety, as well as increase productivity and reduce inequality in the workplace.
In fact, health and safety experts, including the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, have warned that taking a “gender-neutral’” approach to health and safety can result in risks to female workers being underestimated or even ignored altogether.