Issue date
21 Apr 2017

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Unions are committed to improving the working lives and conditions of all workers. Pressing for healthy, safe workplaces for everyone is part and parcel of the union representative’s role. Being aware of the issues relating to gender in occupational health and safety ensures unions strive to ensure that workplaces are safer and healthier for everyone. This is because, where the differences between men and women are acknowledged when assessing risk and deciding suitable risk control solutions, there is a greater chance of ensuring that the health, safety and welfare of all workers is protected. 

Spotting the differences

Men and women have physical, physiological and psychological differences that can determine how risks affect them. Women are also the ones who give birth and, in most cases, look after children or assume other family caring responsibilities.  The employment experiences of men and women also differ, because women and men are still often found in different occupations, or treated differently by employers.  This means that men still tend to predominate more visibly heavy and dangerous work, such as construction, where there are high levels of injury from one-off events. Women, on the other hand, still tend to work in areas where work-related illness arises from less visible, long-term exposures to harm. Even in the same workplace, with the same job title and carrying out the same tasks, men and women can experience different demands, exposures and effects.

Traditional bias

In the past, less attention has been given to the health and safety needs of women. The traditional emphasis of health and safety has been on risk prevention in visibly dangerous work largely carried out by men in sectors such as construction and mining, where inadequate risk control can lead to fatalities.

On the other hand, the historic focus for women (particularly pregnant women) has been on prohibiting certain types of work and exposures, or has been based on an assumption that the kind of work that women do is safer.

Because of this, research and developments in health and safety regulation, policy and risk management have been primarily based on work traditionally done by men, while women’s occupational injuries and illnesses, such as work-related stress, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) and dermatitis have been largely ignored, under-diagnosed, under-reported and under-compensated.

This means that, even today, occupational health and safety often treats men and women as if they were the same, or makes gender-stereotypes, such as saying women do lighter work or that men are less likely to suffer from work-related stress.

In contrast, a gender-sensitive approach acknowledges and makes visible the differences that exist between male and female workers, identifying their differing risks and proposing control measures so that effective solutions are provided for everyone.