Mind the Gap: Recognizing women’s unique OHS needs.

February 28, 2018
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Today, women are becoming more numerous in the global workforce and are moving into traditionally male-dominated industries. A half a decade ago, industries like construction, property management, maintenance and production management could not boast of many female employees. Today, even though women’s representation in many of these industries is still under 10 percent, the number is rapidly growing.   For employers who want to recruit and retain staff, building an inclusive workplace culture that supports employees across differences in race, class, and gender is crucial to success. The knowledge and skills to do this are frequently missing in many work environments.

This poses a range of gender-related questions about the different effects of work-related risks on men and women. For example, women have different exposure limits and protections when it comes to hazardous substances, biological agents, the physical demands of heavy work and ergonomic design. Occupational health and safety regulations have traditionally focused on dangerous jobs in sectors dominated by male workers. As a result, OSH standards and exposure limits to hazardous substances are often based on male populations and laboratory tests. The risks to men workers are better known and addressed and OSH hazards affecting women have been traditionally under-estimated. These factors can affect the bottom line by lowering retention rates, reducing morale and increased absenteeism. There are also the direct and indirect costs of complaint investigations that must be considered. Below we outline just some of the issues that can be beneficial to address and to improve women’s well-being in the workplace.


Women in non-traditional employment frequently face health and safety risks due to the equipment and clothing provided to them at their workplace. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing (PPC) are often designed for average-sized men. This poses both health hazards as the protective function of PPE/PPC may be reduced when they do not fit female workers properly. For example, poorly fitting respirators may not protect adequately against chemicals, loose clothing can be caught in machinery or overly large boots can cause tripping. Furthermore, many women may find the poorly fitting equipment uncomfortable and put themselves at risk by refusing to wear it.

In recent years, many manufacturers have been making PPE that fit women, but it is rare and expensive. Many employers do not make the right PPE available for women and are resistant to women bringing their own PPE. Providing PPE in a wide range of sizes would benefit both workers and employers.


Researchers and employers find that women have gender-specific musculoskeletal problems. For example, their shorter hands and lower grip strength as compared to men frequently make standard hand tools too large. In addition, many women may have less upper body strength than men, which leads to back problems when lifting heavy objects. As a solution, making tools available in smaller sizes to accommodate women and adapting lifting demands for women as well as men across your business can help. Being aware of similar issues and addressing them is an important step to an inclusive workplace.


Workplace exposures to hazardous substances can play a role in the development of cervical and breast cancer. NIOSH is conducting studies of women exposed to the following hazardous substances to determine whether there is a link to cancers: Ethylene oxide and Perchloroethylene. These chemicals are widely used in industries where women are the dominant workforce.

Reproductive Hazards and Chemical Exposure:

The effects of potential occupational hazards on women’s reproductive health have increased in recent years as more environmental hazards are identified and as more women enter the paid workforce.  A range of occupational reproductive hazards has been documented but a large number of possible risks still require further examination.

Solvent levels that are considered safe for adults may affect IQ of the fetus. The unborn child’s brain is much more sensitive than the adult brain. According to research, children born to mothers exposed to solvents in the workplace appear to have significant developmental problems such as lower IQs, compromised language and memory skills, inattentiveness and hyperactivity. This information suggests that current workplace exposure limits may not be good enough and employers should do everything possible to help women minimize such exposures. Women with occupational exposure to toxic chemicals are in general highly vulnerable to adverse reproductive health outcomes. Medical experts warn that there is sufficiently robust evidence to support that exposure to chemicals during pregnancy leads to adverse reproductive and developmental health outcomes. And the risks are highest for those exposed at work.

The issue is not solely about women and pregnancy. Father’s exposures are also relevant. Prenatal exposure to certain chemicals has been documented to increase the risk of cancer in childhood. For example, adult male exposure to pesticides is linked to altered semen quality, sterility, and prostate cancer. Postnatal exposure to some pesticides can interfere with all developmental stages of reproductive function in adult females.

Chemical exposures are not the only concerns. Factors that have a cumulative effect on risk include working night hours, irregular or shiftwork schedule, standing, lifting loads, noise, and high psychological demand coupled with low social support . The researchers say eliminating these factors before the 24th week of pregnancy can bring the odds of impairment down to those of unexposed women.  Exposure to a 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. Additionally, working night shifts in the first three months was linked to a doubling of a woman’s risk of early labour.

Employers should improve recognition of women’s reproductive health in workplace policy and processes. This is necessary to both provide assurances to women that women can discuss their needs with employers and to provide managers and employers with tools to support them. We encourage employers to review policies and processes around occupational health and safety to ensure that these health conditions are taken into account. In particular, employers should ensure that occupational health practitioners recognise women’s reproductive issues during risk assessments.


About the Author – T. Harris Environmental Management

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