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Women’s Health at Work

Posted on by Naomi Swanson,Ph.D.; Julie Tisdale-Pardi, MA; CAPT Leslie MacDonald, Sc.D.; Hope M. Tiesman, Ph.D.


This week is Women’s Health Week. With over 58% of U.S. women in the labor force[i], the workplace must be considered when looking at women’s overall health.   We must keep in mind that susceptibility to hazards can be different for men and women.  Additionally, women face different workplace health challenges than men partly because men and women tend to have different kinds of jobs. Women generally have more work-related cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, and anxiety and stress disorders.  Social, economic, and cultural factors also put women at risk for injury and illness.  While workplace exposures can affect both male and female reproduction, issues related to reproduction and pregnancy are of particular concern to women.  Below you will find summaries, with links to more research, of some hazards faced by women in the workplace as well as links to industry-specific research from NIOSH  that relates to women.   More information is available on the NIOSH topic page Women’s Safety and Health Issues at Work.

Safety and Health Issues Facing Women at Work

Reproductive Issues

In the workforce, 75% of women are of reproductive age. Over half the children born in the United States are born to working mothers.  When a woman is pregnant, her exposures at work can affect her developing baby. Low levels of exposure to chemicals and other substances that may not be harmful to the mother could be harmful for her baby.  NIOSH has conducted many studies among nurses, cosmetologists, agriculture workers, flight attendants and others to learn whether reproductive health hazards may be related to a women’s work environment.   For more information see the NIOSH topic page  Women’s Health Issues at Work: Reproductive for  Health  and  The Effects of Workplace Hazards on Female Reproductive Health

Proposed Pregnancy Lifting Guidelines

How much can a healthy pregnant worker lift at work?  NIOSH is working to address this question and has proposed clinical guidelines with provisional recommended weight limits. NIOSH expects that most pregnant workers with uncomplicated pregnancies would be able to perform lifts at those limits without increased risk of adverse maternal and fetal health consequences[ii].  The proposed guidelines should be useful to occupational health practitioners in the evaluation and redesign of lifting tasks and to clinicians in advising patients about manual lifting restrictions at work. The infographic below summarizes the guidelines. Click the image below for a full-size version.

Provisional recommended weight limits for lifting at work during pregnancy
Click for a full-size image


Women generally have more work-related cases of musculoskeletal disorders (illnesses or injuries of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, arms, legs, neck, or lower back) than men.  More research is needed to understand why but the higher rate of these disorders among women could be related to job differences or physical differences between men and women.

Stress/Work Organization

Levels of stress-related illness are nearly twice as high for women compared to men.  Job stress has been linked with heart disease, muscle/bone disorders, depression, and burnout. NIOSH is working to find causes of workplace stress and possible ways to prevent it. Balancing work and family tasks can put additional stress on women, who in many families still take primary responsibility for childcare and eldercare. In 2011, over 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 years of age were in the labor force. When family and work demands collide, the resulting stress can lead to the physical and mental health problems described above. 

Additionally, women are more likely than men to do contingent, part-time, temporary, or contract work. Compared to workers in traditional job arrangements, contingent workers have lower incomes and fewer benefits. Women who work in insecure jobs may fear that bringing up a safety issue could result in job loss or more difficult work situations. They may also be less likely to report a work-related injury.


In the U.S.  232,340 new cases of breast cancer in women[iii] and 12,340 new cases of cervical cancer[iv] are estimated to be diagnosed in 2013.  Workplace exposures to hazardous substances may play a role in the development of these types of cancer. NIOSH is studying several hazardous substances to determine whether there is a link to cancers that affect women.


Compared to men, women have a much lower rate of job-related deaths. Still, in 2011, homicides accounted for 26% of work-related deaths in women – it is the second leading cause of injury death for women in the workplace. While over one third of workplace homicides among men are robbery- related; among women, nearly 2 out of 5 workplace homicides were perpetrated by a relative-with almost all being a current or former spouse/domestic partner.  

Personal Protective Equipment

Women may face health and safety risks because personal protective equipment and clothing are often designed for average-sized men. The protective function of respirators, work gloves, work boots, and other protective equipment may be reduced when they do not fit properly.

Industry-specific Information

Women are present in all aspects of working America.  The following industries employ large numbers of women and/or represent industries where NIOSH has conducted research specific to women.   Click on the industry below to read more about the hazards facing women in these industries. 


In 2011, an estimated 556,000 women were working in agriculture, forestry, and fishing[v].  In agriculture, women can be exposed to pesticides and chemicals and may be at risk for traumatic injury, musculoskeletal disorders and respiratory disease.


In 2011, 828,000 women were working in construction.  NIOSH and its partners have conducted many studies to improve construction safety and health problems. Women working in construction may be concerned with musculoskeletal disorders, loud noise and hearing loss, fumes, and job stress. 

Health Care

In 2011, over 14.8 million women were working in health care and social assistance. Women working in health care may be worried about illnesses and injuries caused by long hours, shift changes, physical tasks, violence, and possible exposure to infectious and bloodborne diseases and hazardous chemicals.


Food, clothes, chemicals, furniture, oil and coal are just a few products processed by manufacturing workers. In 2011, over 4 million women were working in manufacturing. With the wide range of products processed, women working in manufacturing may be at risk for exposure to hazardous chemicals, physical demands, loud equipment, and long work hours.


In 2011, an estimated 7.6 million women were working in sales.  These women may be concerned about work stress, workplace violence, musculoskeletal disorders, and long hours.


In 2011, 1.6 million women were working in transportation, warehousing, and utilities, combined. Women working in transportation may be concerned about transportation accidents, injuries from falls, and respiratory illnesses.

Women are an integral part of all aspects of the U.S. workforce and their participation will continue to grow. From 2008 to 2018, the women’s civilian labor force is projected to increase by 9.0 percent. The number of women aged 65 to 74 in the civilian labor force is projected to increase more than the number of women in any other age group—increasing by 89.8 percent[vi].  We may need to ask new questions such as are there different issues for older female workers than older male workers?  As we think about women’s health this week and every week we must continue to consider the workplace in the overall health of women and continue to address the unique (and not so unique) safety and health issues facing women in the workplace. 

Naomi Swanson,Ph.D.; Julie Tisdale-Pardi, MA; CAPT Leslie MacDonald, Sc.D.; Hope M. Tiesman, Ph.D.

Dr. Swanson is Chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch in the NIOSH Division of  Applied Research and Technology.

Ms. Tisdale-Pardi is the NIOSH Science Blog Coordinator.

Dr. MacDonald is a scientist officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and works in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies. 

Dr. Tiesman is a research epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research. 


[i] BLS Reports  Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Report 1040, February 2013; URL 

[ii]LA  MacDonald, TR Waters, PG  Napolitano, DE Goddard, M A Ryan, P Nielsen, SD. Hudock. Clinical guidelines for occupational lifting in pregnancy: evidence summary and provisional recommendations. Am J Obstet Gynecol,  (March 2013).



[v] BLS Reports  Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Report 1040, February 2013;


Posted on by Naomi Swanson,Ph.D.; Julie Tisdale-Pardi, MA; CAPT Leslie MacDonald, Sc.D.; Hope M. Tiesman, Ph.D.

33 comments on “Women’s Health at Work”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Totally agree and great article. Like seniors company’s need to plan and budget for women. Flexibility is key here, allowing for more time to work at home. However, the employee should not abuse this privilege.

    Women’s Health at Work.
    At present there are risks: Sexual Harassment, Burnout and Mobbing.
    I think are important to consider, diagnosing and evaluating.

    Is inhaling the odour of Clorox type of detergent be safe without using proper mask. should this is safe but why the girl whose working in this felt dizziness and feel uneasy. even they cant go to work for a day or two.

    Without more information, it is difficult to recommend the proper type of protection that may be required. It is important to know that when bleach is mixed with an acid it releases chlorine gas. This can be very dangerous and even lead to death. Be careful not to mix bleach with other chemicals and make sure there is proper ventilation in the room where the bleach is being used. As a last resort, a chemical cartridge respirator (dust masks are not effective) may be necessary. Anyone using a respirator should be medically cleared, have proper training, be fit tested, and follow a respiratory protection plan to make sure that the correct respirator is selected and worn properly. Also, a respirator that provides eye protection such as a full face respirator may be needed to prevent eye irritation. Make sure to follow the manufacturer recommendations and do these processes in well ventilated areas.

    The following fact sheets may provide more information. The OSHA NIOSH Info Sheet on Protecting Workers Who Use Cleaning Chemicals states “ Mists, vapors and/or gases from cleaning chemicals can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms may include burning eyes, sore throat, coughing, trouble breathing and wheezing. Chemicals in some cleaning products can cause asthma or trigger asthma attacks. Some cleaning products contain hazardous chemicals that can enter the body through skin contact or from breathing gases into the lungs. Mixing cleaning products that contain bleach and ammonia can cause severe lung damage or death.”

    North Dakota Fact Sheet on Bleach Safety

    OSHA/NIOSH Info Sheet on Protecting Workers Who Use Cleaning Chemicals

    The lifting guidelines for pregnancy are really helpful.
    What is known about the risks to women, especially in pregnancy, of working nail salons?

    The following links to NIOSH research and publications contain information on reproductive issues potentially faced by cosmetologists and nail salon workers.

    Adverse health outcomes among cosmetologists and noncosmetologists in the Reproductive Outcomes of Salon Employees (ROSE) study Cosmetologists completed surveys about health problems, including those related to cardiovascular, skin and respiratory health issues. When their responses were compared to women in other occupations, the cosmetologists were at a significantly higher risk of depression. No other associations were statistically significant between cosmetologists and adverse health outcomes.

    Health outcomes of children born to cosmetologists compared to children of women in other occupations
    The findings indicate that cosmetologists are not at increased risk of having a child with medical problems compared to women in other occupations.

    Infertility among cosmetologists
    Findings of this study suggest that cosmetologists are not at increased risk for infertility compared to same age women working in other occupations.

    Premature ovarian failure among hairdressers
    Among Caucasian women 40-55 years of age, hairdressers were more than five times as likely to report premature ovarian failure compared with non-hairdressers.

    Controlling Chemical Hazards During the Application of Artificial Fingernails (Hazard Control 28)DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 99-112 (January, 1999)

    Nail salon hazards and health effects
    Surveys completed by nail technicians identified as common work-related musculoskeletal disorders, skin problems, respiratory irritation and headaches. Assessment found that 16 of 22 nail salons in the study had no mechanical ventilation of any kind other than table fans and room air cleaners.

    It is very important for making work place safe and healthy environment for women to remove future medical complications. All measures must be adopted by top management to make all women’s comfort at workplace.

    “232,340 new cases of breast cancer in women and 12,340 new cases of cervical cancer are estimated to be diagnosed in 2013”

    Whew! I’m glad 2013 is almost over!

    Stacy Jones

    The number of women aged 65 to 74 in the civilian labor force is projected to increase
    Isn’t that when everyone should be retired? I find it a little odd…

    With the sharp increase in life expectancy more people are choosing to work longer, while others cannot afford to retire at age 65. The working population is aging and fewer young people are entering the workforce. To maintain their workforce, many employers rely on their experienced workers and need to retain them past their traditional retirement age.

    I absolutely enjoyed reading “Women’s Health at Work”. Excellent article. I look forward to interacting with you and reading more of your work. Have a wonderful day! =)

    Women’s health includes a wide range of specialties and focus areas, such as:

    Birth control, sexually transmitted infections, and gynecology
    Breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other female cancers
    Menopause and hormone replacement therapy
    Pregnancy and childbirth
    Sexual health
    Women and heart disease
    Benign conditions affecting the function of the female reproductive organs

    Fantastic article it is I already read your post. I think this post is very very important and valuable.

    Very important for women.I like your post.Thanks for post.Thanks for sharing this informative post.

    Inflammatory breast cancer, or IBC, is a rare form of breast cancer. It is estimated to occur in only 1 – 3% of all breast cancer patients. It usually occurs in post-menopausal women, but cases have been found in girls as young as 12 and in men. IBC is usually diagnosed at an earlier age than other forms of breast cancer and is more common in African American women than in Caucasian women. This cancer has a higher mortality rate because it is often misdiagnosed in the early, more treatable stages. However, advances in cancer research have improved the survival rate.


    Totally agree and great article. Like seniors company’s need to plan and budget for women. Flexibility is key here, allowing for more time to work at home. However, the employee should not abuse this privilege.

    Is great to have some information about this in english, I only find it in spanish, Cant believe in some european countries the have a complete year to stay with the newborn…

    When I was pregnant with my first , I was working as a personal nurse to a patient who smoked. Even though he never smoked when I was around, i think it had an effect on my pregnancy. I eventually quit because i could not take the smell anymore but i think it was too late. I had preeclampsia and my baby was born at 27 weeks. Eventhough my agency knew i was pregnant, they didn’t care much so far as the work got done. We need to stand up for our rights as women and protect ourselves from these workplace hazards.

    nice article..Thanks for sharing.
    Really good post! Hope there will be more good post here!Thanks.

    Glenn McGee

    I remember when I was pregnant, the manicurist didn’t really want to do my nails when she found out I was pregnant. By that time, my nails were almost done. I didn’t know then that it could have posed a risk to my unborn child. Thankfully I only went once during my pregnancy, but I’m fearful of women who make cosmetology a career.

    Naomi, thank you for the update above about cosmetologists! I am glad that working in a salon doesn’t pose a threat to reproductive health.

    Women are increasingly participating in every area of national development. Women have more educational degrees than men. We work almost half like men in workplaces. Still gender is count as a factor while the salary is decided. In spite of reproductive health requirements for women, I’ve seen many working women compromise just to continue their career. If we don’t increase this awareness in personal level then we all are responsible for it.

    Women generally have more work-related cases of musculoskeletal disorders (illnesses or injuries of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, arms, legs, neck, or lower back) than men.
    How is the best way for women to do the work of men safely ?


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