Women and OHS

Women and men are not the same, and the jobs they do, their working conditions and circumstances and how society treats them are not the same. All these factors can affect the risks they face at work and the approach that needs to be taken to prevent these risks. More widespread recognition of the importance of taking account of gender differences in occupational health and safety (OHS) is relatively recent, although the number of initiatives seen in this area is increasing. However, especially because it is not always a very well understood area, practice needs to be exchanged and experiences shared.  (From the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work)

Women sometimes need extra OHS protection at work - for example exposures to hazardous substances can harm a developing foetus.

Below are some resources which have information and can assist in developing policies and in considering these issues.

    1. We Are Union Women - from the Women's Team at the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
    2. The Multicultural Centre for Women's Health (MCWH) is a women's health organisation which is committed to improving the health of immigrant and refugee women around Australia. MCWH is for all women from immigrant communities, including refugee and asylum seekers and women from both emerging and established communities.  The Centre provides national leadership and excellence in multilingual health education, advocacy, training, and research with specific expertise in sexual, reproductive, occupational, and mental health.  It is located at Suite 207, Level 2; Carringbush Building, 134 Cambridge St,Collingwood Victoria 3066 Ph: 03 9418 0999
    3. EU: union strategies to prevent, manage and eliminate workplace harassment and violence against women

A report produced in July 2017 as part of the 'Safe at Home, Safe at Work' Project of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) draws together evidence collected from interviews carried out as part of 11 detailed country case studies of European-level developments on gender-based violence and harassment at work, including domestic violence at work.

Gender-based violence and harassment is a form of discrimination that causes significant harm to women, whether it take place in the workplace, in public places, on public transport, in schools and colleges, or in the family. The report shows how trade unions and/or social partners have approached the issue in negotiations, collective bargaining, union awareness-raising, training and campaigns, and partnerships with women's organisations working to end gender-based violence.

The report points to good practices in the workplace and shows the added value of trade unions actions, innovations and negotiations to support victims and create workplaces free from violence and harassment. Read the report in 5 languages (EN, FR, BG, DE and ES) and the different country reports.

  1. From the International Labour Organisation (ILO):
    • A guide urging employers, unions, OHS managers and inspectors to ensure workplaces are as free as possible from reproductive health hazards for both men and women. The guidance sets out practical steps on how to protect the female worker and her child, if she is working during pregnancy, has recently given birth, is returning to work after pregnancy, or is breastfeeding on her return to work. Healthy beginnings: guidance on safe maternity at work. (121 page downloadable document)
    • Information on Maternity Protection  including access to the ILO Standards.
    • Questions and answers on about maternity at work.
  2. Hazards - Women and Work Hazards website
  3. Women and the menopause. The TUC, the UK's peak union council has published new guidance on how employers and union reps can work together to support women through the menopause at work. Menopause is an important occupational health issue for the millions of women over the age of 50 currently in work, and employers need to recognise that women of menopausal age may need extra consideration, as changes during the menopause can affect how a woman does her work, and her relationship with her boss and colleagues. The publication, Supporting women through the menopause is designed to assist union reps raise the issue of the menopause in workplaces, and ensure that employers are aware that poor working conditions can aggravate symptoms.

    Also available: an interactive guide Menopause at Work.

    The guidance is drawn from the experience of UK union health and safety representatives and also important  research (Women's Experience of Working through the Menopause [pdf]) published by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) in conjunction with the University of Nottingham.

    The report suggests:
    • Employers should ensure that all line managers have been trained to know how the menopause can affect work and what adjustments may be necessary to support women who are experiencing the menopause.
    • Employers can highlight the menopause so all staff know that the workplace has a positive attitude to the issue. Guidance on how to deal with the menopause should be freely available.
    • Women should be given information of how they can get support for issues that arise as a result of the menopause. Some women will feel uncomfortable going to their line manager, especially if it is a man, and other options should be available through human resources, or a welfare officer.
    • Sickness absence procedures should cater for menopause-related sickness absence.
    • Working time arrangements should be flexible enough to ensure they meet the needs of menopausal women, who may require to leave work suddenly. They may also need more breaks during the day.
    • Risk assessments should consider the specific needs of menopausal women and ensure that the working environment will not make their symptoms worse. Issues that need looking at include temperature and ventilation. The assessments should also address welfare issues such as toilet facilities and access to cold water.
  4. UK's retail union Usdaw has published a pregnancy risks assessment leaflet to provide advice on some of the more common factors that may cause a risk to pregnant women. Usdaw pregnancy risk assessment leaflet [pdf]
  5. Resources on Menopause from the UK public sector union, UNISON
  6. The UK's health and safety regulator, the HSE has a webpage on Health and safety for new and expectant mothers which has information, FAQs and case studies
  7. From NIOSH in the US, CDC Topic: Women's Safety and Health Issues at Work
  8. European Agency for Safety and Health
    1. Women and safety and health at work and many other articles.
    2. A December 2013 publication: New risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work. This report presents an update to the Agency´s previous research on gender issues at work, which found that inequality both inside and outside the workplace can have an effect on the health and safety of women at work. It provides a policy perspective and is meant to contribute to the task outlined by the European strategy on health and safety at work for EU-OSHA's European Risk Observatory, "examining the specific challenges in terms of health and safety posed by the more extensive integration of women in the labour market". It provides a statistical overview of the trends in employment and working conditions, hazard exposure and work-related accidents and health problems for women at work. It explores selected issues (combined exposures, occupational cancer, access to rehabilitation, women and informal work, and "emerging" female professions such as home care and domestic work). The research highlights the type of work carried out by women, issues faced by younger and older women, the growth of the service sector, violence and harassment, and increasingly diversified working time patterns as major risk factors.
    3. Mainstreaming gender into occupational safety and health practice (November 2014)
      This report presents examples of policies, programmes and practices from across the EU and worldwide to illustrate gender approaches in Occupational Safety and Health.
  9. From the IUF:  Making women visible in occupational health and safety, January 2020. The global union says its new resource “on integrating gender into workplace health and safety” includes a brief outline of the problem, specific concerns raised by IUF affiliates, and proposals for action. It incorporates a briefing on do-it-yourself research, including body and hazard mapping, and a checklist of issues which can help trade union members fully integrate gender into occupational health and safety.
Further information:
Night work linked to premature births

Working nights while pregnant increases the risk of giving birth prematurely by up to 50 per cent, according to a new study. University of North Carolina researchers looked at the working conditions of 1,900 pregnant women. Their findings, published in the December 2005 issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynaecology, found standing for long periods and lifting heavy weights did not increase the risk of premature labour. But working nightshifts in the first three months was linked to a doubling in a woman's risk of early labour. The women, who were all interviewed in the seventh month of their pregnancy, were asked to report details about their jobs, such as how many hours per day they spent standing, and how many times per day they lifted an object that weighed 25 pounds (approx 11kg) or more. The 9.2 per cent of women (166) who worked nights were found to be at a 50 per cent increased risk of giving birth early. However, the researchers say the reason for the link is unclear, and they stress that relatively few women in the study actually worked nights, particularly as their pregnancy progressed. Dr Lisa Pompeii, who led the research, said: 'The findings from our study are based on a small sample size and need to be interpreted with caution... further studies need to be done to explore whether or how shift work influences uterine activity during pregnancy.'

Lisa A Pompeii, David A Savitz, Kelly R Evenson and others. Physical exertion at work and the risk of preterm delivery and small-for-gestational-age birth, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, volume 106, pages 1279-1288, 2005.
Work conditions raise risk of having a small baby

Exposure to range of workplace risks in pregnancy can increase the likelihood of having an under-sized infant, according to a new report in the American Journal of Public Health. Irregular or shiftwork schedules are key problems. The researchers say eliminating these factors before the 24th week of pregnancy can bring the odds down to those of unexposed women. 'Small-for-gestational' (SGA) infants are at increased risk for a number of problems, including low levels of oxygen and blood sugar at birth. Dr Agathe Croteau, from Université Laval, Québec, Canada, and colleagues assessed the impact of occupational conditions on the risk of having an SGA infant by analysing data from 1,536 mothers with SGA babies and 4,441 mothers with normal babies. Factors that had a cumulative effect on risk included working night hours, irregular or shiftwork schedule, standing, lifting loads, noise, and high psychological demand coupled with low social support. Compared with the complete absence of these conditions, the risk of having an SGA infant ranged from 8 to 129 per cent when one to all six of these conditions was present. Preventive measures before the 24th week such as reassignment to a safer job or withdrawal from work largely eliminated the increased risk.

Agathe Croteau, Sylvie Marcoux, and Chantal Brisson. Work activity in pregnancy, preventive measures, and the risk of delivering a small-for-gestational-age infant, American Journal of Public Health, volume 96, pages 846-855, 2006 [abstract]. Reuters Health. Source: Risks 257

'Safe' work solvent levels may affect IQ of foetus

Children born to mothers exposed to solvents in the workplace appear to have significant developmental problems as a result, according to new research. Canadian researchers found the children had lower IQs, poorer language and memory skills, and were inattentive and hyperactive. 'It does seem that organic solvents do affect brain development when exposure occurs in pregnancy, which means women should do everything possible to minimize such exposure,' said Gideon Koren, director of the Motherisk programme at the Hospital for Sick Children and the lead investigator. The research, published in the medical journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, looked at women from 17 different occupations, including painter, science teacher, photo lab worker, graphic designer, electrical company workers and embalmer. While the differences were 'subtle,' the researchers said the study was important because it was the first to document possible harm to a foetus from exposure to organic solvents, suggesting that workplace exposure limits were not good enough. 'The adult may be okay, but the unborn's brain is much more sensitive. It's still developing,' said Dr Koren, 'The baby needs his own guidelines.'
Gideon Koren and others. Child neurodevelopmental outcome and maternal occupational exposure to solvents. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, [abstract] 

Chemical exposure at work poses worst pregnancy risk

Medical experts have warned that the evidence that exposure to chemicals in pregnancy leads to adverse reproductive and developmental health outcomes is 'sufficiently robust,' with the risks highest for those exposed at work. A report released in September 2013 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) urges doctors to push for stricter policies to better identify and reduce exposure to chemicals that prove risky. During the first prenatal visit, ACOG wants doctors to ask mothers-to-be about their exposure to chemicals. Doctors should also ask about work during that first visit, the committee advised. The report warns: 'Women with occupational exposure to toxic chemicals also are highly vulnerable to adverse reproductive health outcomes.' The report noted that the issue is not solely about women and pregnancy, with a father's exposures also relevant. 'Obtaining a patient history during a preconception visit and the first prenatal visit to identify specific types of exposure that may be harmful to a developing fetus is a key step and also should include queries of the maternal and paternal workplaces,' the report said. 'Prenatal exposure to certain chemicals has been documented to increase the risk of cancer in childhood; adult male exposure to pesticides is linked to altered semen quality, sterility, and prostate cancer; and postnatal exposure to some pesticides can interfere with all developmental stages of reproductive function in adult females, including puberty, menstruation and ovulation, fertility and fecundity, and menopause.'
Read more:  American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists committee opinion, number 575, October 2013. Source: Risks 624

Last amended March 2022


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