Women face many gender-specific OHS risks

Experiencing more workplace violence, musculoskeletal disorders, says Women in Safety speaker

While women and men face many of the same occupational health and safety risks on the job, there are some significant differences that safety professionals need to take into account. For example, certain chemicals are known to affect a woman’s reproductive health and women face a higher likelihood of being victims of workplace harassment.

A panel discussion titled Risk and Trends in the Health and Safety of Women at Work is being held at Women in Safety in Calgary on March 5 to dive deeper into these differences.

Reproductive health
Numerous studies are available that describe how exposure to certain chemicals can have on a negative effect on women’s reproductive organs. For example, working with cytotoxic drugs has been linked to infertility issues, miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects.

If a worker is pregnant, there are a slew of other considerations and it might be unsafe for her to continue in her regular job. But this can be a challenge for both the employee, who often wishes to continue working until the baby comes, and the employer who needs to find proper accommodation, said Dave Rebbitt, president of Rarebit Consulting in Calgary and one of the speakers on the panel.

“If you’re a woman and you’re working in the Pickering [Ontario] nuclear power plant, what do we do there?” he asks. “The nuclear industry has this great mantra ‘As low as reasonably achievable.’ Well, that might be off the property.”

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)
According to Rebbitt, women are more likely to be affected by MSDs than men, including repetitive strain injuries, back injuries and carpal tunnel. This is because women are more likely to be found working in an office environment where equipment is designed to fit 80 per cent of the population, but in reality, that’s 80 per cent of men, Rebbitt said.

“Most of the equipment we have is designed to accommodate men and there’s a lot of overlap there, but for women that have a small stature, it’s really hard to find the right kind of equipment that’s going to fit them,” he said.

Workplace violence
Women tend to find themselves in roles that are more at risk of workplace violence, such as health-care and front-line customer service. Unfortunately, gender bias tends to seep into these situations as well, such as a female bylaw officer not being given the same amount of respect as her male counterparts, Rebbitt said.

“That really exposes them to workplace violence in terms of dealing with members of the public; people who may be very unhappy,” he said.

Workplace harassment
Studies have also shown that women experience more workplace harassment than men. A recent Statistics Canada study noted that one in five women report suffering from harassment on the job in the past year.

Rebbitt notes that women are generally more collegial in the workplace and less likely to speak up.

“If they are good at their job, they can become a target for passive aggressive behaviour… It’s like the politics of exclusion,” he said.

To better protect the health and safety of their female employees, employers need to treat the “health” related issues that fall under occupational health and safety as seriously as they treat the more traditional “safety” issues.

“These are legitimate health and safety hazards; legitimate risks that need to be addressed,” Rebbitt said.

He recommends female employees join the joint health and safety committee at their company and help steer the conversation toward health-related concerns.

“We have to look more at wellness and the psychosocial side of safety,” Rebbitt said. “You can link the health and safety together but try and put a capital H on that health.”