Women make up 42% of the workforce in the EU, however, historically there has been little focus on how gender and sex differences affect health and safety. Research studies have focused primarily on men, while excluding or ignoring women. But understanding the impact of gender and sex differences on people’s occupational health and safety can help to reduce inequality in the workplace.
In generalised terms, it is still true to say that there are gender differences in how people are concentrated in occupations and industries, and therefore there are often differences in the kinds of hazards that they face. Additionally, their working conditions and the attitudes and behaviour of their employers can affect the hazards they deal with, and how risks need to be assessed and controlled. For example, there are differences in working patterns, as women are more likely to work part-time than men; and an EU-wide survey found that “women were more likely than men to undertake repetitive tasks or repetitive work and were more likely to have difficulty taking breaks” which has significant effects when it comes to the risk of musculoskeletal injury.
In relation to health and safety management (as in other management areas), there is an ongoing problem of under-representation of women in safety committees and other decision making groups. Therefore issues around female-specific health and safety can be marginalised or overlooked. While some might argue that a gender-neutral approach is best, this in fact tends not to occur, and management adopts an automatically male-centric approach, which results in risks to female workers being underestimated or even ignored altogether.
So, what to do to improve things? Firstly, ensure that there is appropriate representation in groups that deal with implementing health and safety in your organisation. Then do some research on how sex and gender differences affect your industry. There are plenty of helpful resources out there on women and safety that can assist you in developing a more rounded approach to health and safety. Here are some starting points:
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has information on gender issues and safety and health at work , including gender issues in risk assessments
The TUC provides a range of guidance around gender and occupational health.
The Health and Safety Executive offers information related to new and expectant mothers, and how they can be supported.