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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2013.02.047
[v] BLS Reports Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Report 1040, February 2013; www.bls.gov