The same, only different: Women’s hazards on the job

The nature of the work done by women is often confused with the nature of women.

Karen Messing, One-eyed Science

Women are not small men. Nor are their experiences of work and hazards the same. Even when women and men have the same job titles, what they really do often is quite different. Think about male and female “cleaners”.

Too many jobs include serious hazards. Yet women’s experiences — and hazards — have got little attention, unless it’s about reproductive health issues. Occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation systems end up being designed around the types of hazards that men experience.

Despite the stereotypes and some well-known differences, women’s bodies have a lot in common with men’s. After all, anything that harms men is a hazard for women too. The differences and inattention to the common features have affected how women’s is studied, regulated, and dealt with on the job. Women’ responsibilities — and work — at home and in the community add to the toll.

While we want women’s equality on the job, we may fear that “complaints” about women’s working conditions will be interpreted the wrong way, that pointing out biological or physical differences help those who oppose that equality. Women should be able to be the same, but different.

We know that women’s work:

  • is often invisible (e.g., data entry, administration, cleaners);
  • is more likely to have unclear job/task requirements, isolation, fewer (if any) breaks, more interruptions, longer hours, and less access to training;
  • often involves caring for others and putting patients/clients before themselves (and doing the same at home);
  • is more likely to involve multiple hazards (e.g., agriculture, manufacturing and transport, and hotel, restaurant and catering sections
  • is likely to include violence hazards — from verbal abuse through bullying/harassment to physical assaults — especially in caring tasks, retail work, or other encounters with the public;
  • consistently has hazards, while aging men move into jobs with fewer ones; and
  • is less often unionised.

The results of stereotyping and the tasks women really do include:

  • “naturalised” or trivialised hazards like those of “ordinary life” (e.g., working with hazardous chemicals in activities like cleaning, packaging, etc.);
  • monotonous jobs with low pay, lack of control and little decision-making power leading to more stress and strain-related illnesses and musculoskeletal problems (aches and pains) in different spots than men (e.g., neck
  • stressors like multiple demands, sexual and other harassment, emotional work and job demands conflicting with pregnancy, nursing and family life (and toxic stress leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and mental injuries);
  • chronic fatigue or exhaustion, affecting the ability to rest and recover from job-related hazards;
  • reproductive problems such as dysmenorrhea (painful periods), irregular cycles and difficult pregnancies associated with a variety of hazards;
  • low wage jobs, often occupied by women, tend to have higher injury rates than others (e.g., home health aides, hotel housekeepers);
  • female immigrant workers often work in jobs with more hazards, low pay, no union, no security; and
  • in a 2016 European report, women had nearly or above half of all cases of work-associated ill health, including allergies (45 %), infectious illnesses (61 %), neurological (nervous system) complaints (55 %) and liver and skin complaints (48 %).

Resources — background, context and solutions

These documents and presentations provide an overview of women’s hazards at work and what can be done about them.

“Taking back the workplace. Workplace violence: a hidden risk in women’s work.” From Invisible: issues in women’s occupational health/la santé des travailleuses,

Improving the health of women in the workforce. An action Plan developed by a meeting of Canadian researchers and representatives of women workers. Developed by participants at the Symposium on the Health of Women in the Workforce
held at the Université du Québec a Montréal, March 26-28, 1998

Our health is not (supposed to be) for sale. Women’s occupational health issues. Presented at the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association (CAAA) Women’s Workplace Injuries Symposium, Sacramento, 2014

Ergonomic hazards — some myths and realities. Women need “special treatment”.

The same, only different: fitting the job to women’s needs. Presented at the European Trade Union Institute’s conference, Women, Work and Health: Sharing knowledge and experiences to enhance women’s working conditions and gender equality, Brussels, 2014. See the short video too. And my 1988 presentation here

Pain and prejudice: What science can learn about work from the people who do it, Karen Messing, Between the Lines, 2014

Gender, work and health, the European Trade Union Institute’s page about gender and hazards, including Women and occupational diseases. The case of Belgium

Making women visible in occupational health and safety, International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), 2020.