The gender dimension: Integrating the gender perspective in OSH policies

The increasing proportion of women in the workforce raises a range of gender-related questions about the different effects of work-related risks on men and women. If health promotion policies in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH) are to be effective for both women and men, they must be based on more accurate information about the relationship between health and gender roles.

Analysis | 15 December 2014
Concerns have been expressed over the different effects of exposure to hazardous substances and biological agents on reproductive health, the physical demands of heavy work, the ergonomic design of workplaces and the length of the working day, especially when domestic duties also have to be taken into account. At present, there is a shortage of information about the different gender-related risks of exposure to certain chemicals, to genetic materials cultivated and harvested in transgenic laboratories, and to pharmaceuticals with new genetic properties, all of which may have different long-term health effects on women and men. Possible occupational causes are as yet unexplored and research is needed to assess the links between occupational exposures and their outcomes, in order to make available adequate guidance.

Women workers are particularly disadvantaged by out of date workforce structures, workplace arrangements and attitudes. The concentration of women workers in particular occupations leads to a specific pattern of injury and disease. General measures directed at all workers do not necessarily achieve the desired benefits for women workers. Health promotion policies for working women need to take into account all of their three roles: as housewives, as mothers and as workers. The effects of gender on health need to be more carefully explored to develop a better understanding of the relationship between women’s health and the social and economic roles of women as they match those of men. These findings need to be incorporated into policy-making.
Relevant labour standards for the adoption of a coherent national policy on OSH and action at the national and enterprise level:
If health promotion policies in the field of OSH are to be effective for both women and men, they must be based on more accurate information about the relationship between health and gender roles. A broad strategy for the improvement of women workers’ safety and health has to be built up within a national policy on OSH, particularly in those areas where many women are concentrated. The effects on health of each role have to be looked at separately and the potential conflicts and contradictions between them need to be examined. A coherent framework should be developed to ensure a coordinated national approach.

A national policy on OSH should include the specific protection of women workers' safety and health as a goal. It should provide guidance to enable employers, trade unions and national authorities to identify problems, make the appropriate links with general safety and health activities for all workers and develop specific programmes to ensure that the needs of women workers are taken into account in occupational and industrial restructuring processes at the national level, particularly in the areas of legislation, information and training, workers’ participation and applied research.

In the case of research on OSH, occupational epidemiology should be sufficiently sensitive to identify any gender-based disparities.