Women represent over 40 percent of the global workforce. Despite this, occupational health and safety continues to focus on the safety of men in the workplace. Not only are things like OHS standards and exposure limits based on male populations and lab tests, but much of the discussion around occupational health and safety issues has revolved around dangerous jobs in male-dominated sectors (learn about 5 Essential Exposure Limit Terms Worth Knowing).

Increased concern for gender equality in the workplace has led to gender-neutral approaches to healthy and safety, but this is not itself a perfect solution since it means directing fewer resources to identifying and preventing risks that only or disproportionately affect women. This, unfortunately, has some tangible consequences. For example, a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined workers in a heavy manufacturing environment and found that injury rates were actually higher among females, who accounted for 7.5 percent of the total aluminum smelter employees but 10 percent of the total injuries sustained.

A workplace is only truly safe when it's safe for everyone who works in it. Here, we're going to put the focus on women's safety by looking at five key factors that have a significant impact on the health and safety of women on the job.

Physical Differences

Women have a number of physical differences when compared to men. Smaller bone structure, shorter and narrower hands and feet, and smaller facial shape and features, just to name a few. This can make finding properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) difficult, since most work clothes are still designed for the "average man."

Many women report that ill-fitting PPE gets in the way of them doing their jobs safely and effectively, whether it's gloves that are too big and are a bit clumsy, hard hats that fall down over the eyes, or harnesses that aren’t designed to accommodate hips or breasts and therefore don’t offer a snug fit (learn more about Selecting the Right PPE for Women).

In a TUC report on PPE and women, one worker notes that she ended up in physiotherapy due to injuries resulting from an improperly fitted stab vest that was too tight on her hips and chest and causing poor posture. Another mentioned that her employer “doesn’t do” small high-visibility safety vests, requiring her instead to wear long-sleeve hi-vis jackets in all types of weather.

Physical differences can also have an impact on women’s ability to comfortably work with industrial machinery. Again, most machinery is designed with the average man in mind, so it can be difficult for those with smaller statures (whether they're men or women) to operate. At best, it can be awkward and tiring for the duration of the shift, but it can also lead to serious musculoskeletal injuries or devastating accidents.

Finally, most research on safety equipment is performed using male subjects, and safety hazards for women are underrepresented due to the fact that safety standards and exposure limits for chemicals and other hazardous substances are based on data from male populations and lab tests.

OSHA requires that employers provide workers with properly fitting PPE, but stops short of mandating that female employees be provided with gear made specifically for women. Rather, they note as a best practice, “Whenever employers are required to purchase PPE, they should purchase these items in size ranges suitable for women,” since one size does not fit all.

Underrepresentation in Management

Although some progress has been made on this front, women are still not equally or proportionally represented among managers and supervisors. This means they they don’t have a seat at the decision-making table and don’t have enough of a say when it comes to creating and implementing the health and safety policies, procedures, and strategies that affect female employees.

There is no legislation to regulate the number of women that must be in managerial positions – and legislation may not be the right answer, anyway. Rather, the safety profession needs to become more appealing to women. OSHA has an alliance with the National Association of Women in Construction, and the National Safety Council developed the Women’s Caucus to help create a more inclusive, supportive atmosphere for women in the safety field. It offers networking and mentorship opportunities, as well as a chance for women to discuss critical issues that affect the safety of women in the workplace. Initiatives like these are a step forward to ensuring that women are better represented in occupations and positions where they can have the biggest impact.

Occupational Stereotypes

Stereotypes also have an effect on women’s safety. Jobs associated with women or popularly classified as "women's work" are often mistakenly considered safer or easier than they really are. In many cases, this means the jobs assigned to women aren’t properly assessed for hazards, putting workers at serious risk.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reports, for example, that women tend to have greater incidences of skin diseases due to working with wet hands in jobs such as catering, or from repeated exposure to cleaning agents or hairdressing chemicals. The solution for preventing these types of issues isn’t complex. It simply requires conducting full health and safety evaluations for all jobs, no matter how low-risk they may seem.

Pregnancy and Reproductive Health

When it comes to physical work, it’s obvious that pregnant women can’t bend, lift, and carry things the way their non-pregnant co-workers can. Many employers recognize this and alter the workloads to accommodate. But other hazards, like pesticides and harmful chemicals, are less obvious. Employers may not readily make accommodations for these, but regular exposure to them could have long-term implications for pregnant workers and the babies they are carrying (for related reading, see Protective Clothing for Agricultural Workers and Pesticide Handlers).

OSHA has various standards applicable to specific hazardous substances, such as lead, 1, 2-dibromo-3 chloropropane (DBCP), and ethylene oxide, which are known to negatively affect the reproductive system. Women react differently to different substances, however, and it simply isn’t possible to write specific standards to cover every possibility.

According to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, employers must treat pregnant workers just as they would temporarily disabled workers. This means providing modified tasks, alternative assignments, lighter duties, and disability leave for those who are unable to perform their normal roles.

Employers, unfortunately, don’t always respect this requirement, which can put both the health of the women and the unborn child at risk. A 2014 case brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission focused on a pregnant 25-year-old Wal-Mart maintenance worker in Maryland who fell ill due to the toxic cleaning chemicals she was using at work. The fumes made her so sick that she ended up in the emergency room – twice. She then began missing shifts and was eventually fired, leaving her and her family without income and homeless. A terrible outcome that could have easily been prevented with a temporary modification to her work assignment.

Long Work Hours

Most safety professionals now know the impact long shifts have on workers. But one thing that isn't always part of the discussion is the additional unpaid work women often do in the home.

Women in OECD member countries spend, on average, 271 minutes (or 4.5 hours) each day doing unpaid work. This includes tasks like cooking, cleaning, childcare, laundry, maintenance, gardening, and other household activities. Men, in contrast, spend about 137 minutes on these tasks.

When you consider that full-time working women spend about 6 to 8 hours doing paid labor as well, that adds up to a work day that’s anywhere from 10.5 to 12.5 hours. Shouldering this much labor on a regular basis can lead to increased stress, burnout, and poor sleep. And from a safety perspective, that means a significant reduction in reaction time, motor control, decision-making abilities, and situational awareness while on the job (read more about Managing Employee Burnout to Reduce Deadly Accidents).

Final Thoughts

As more women take on safety management roles and break stereotypes about the type of work women can do, we'll likely see a positive shift in the way OHS initiatives strategize to keep women safer in the workplace. Until that time comes, every safety professional should make sure they are aware of the factors that can increase women's risk in the workplace and take steps to address them.