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May 16, 2014
It's Women's Health Week. Are you protecting female workers?

In honor of Women’s Health Week (May 12–18, 2014), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published an article outlining the safety and health issues facing women in the workplace and urging employers to consider these unique occupational hazards when designing workplace health and safety programs. Are you protecting the female employees at your company? Keep reading to find out.

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According to NIOSH, women and men face different hazards both because of differences in susceptibility and because women and men tend to have different kinds of jobs. Overall, women tend to have more work-related cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, and anxiety and stress disorders. In addition, workplace exposures are of particular concern for women because of the potential for reproductive problems or risk to a developing baby.

The following are some of the key occupational hazards that affect women:

Ergonomics. According to NIOSH, more research is needed to determine why women have a higher rate of musculoskeletal disorders than men. Solutions to ergonomic issues often involve changing tools, equipment, materials, work methods, or the work environment to avoid or reduce sudden force, repetitive motion, constant vibration, or awkward postures.

Workplace violence. Homicides accounted for 27% of work-related deaths among women, making it the second leading cause of workplace fatalities. Among men, over a third of workplace homicides are robbery-related, while among women, nearly 2 out of 5 workplace homicides were perpetrated by a relative, usually a current or former spouse or domestic partner.

Personal protective equipment (PPE). Because PPE and protective clothing are often designed for average-sized men, women who must wear PPE on the job may not be adequately protected from hazards. For example, the protective function of respirators, work gloves, and work boots may be reduced when they do not fit properly.

Stress and work organization. According to NIOSH, women suffer from nearly twice the level of stress-related illness as men. Job stress has been linked with heart disease, muscle and bone disorders, depression, and burnout. Women are also more likely than men to work on a contingent, part-time, temporary, or contract basis. Because this type of work often comes with fewer benefits and less job security, women who work under these arrangements may fear that reporting safety issues could have negative repercussions for them.

Reproductive hazards. With 75% of the female workforce of reproductive age, reproductive hazards can be a major concern. For pregnant women, levels of chemical exposures that may not pose a problem to the woman can harm a developing baby. Pregnant women also need to be mindful of physical hazards: lifting heavy objects can be hazardous to both the woman and her developing baby. NIOSH is researching safe lifting levels for pregnant women and has published provisional recommendations.

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