OHS Matters: Women and Occupational Health and Safety

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, March 8, we pose the question: are women as equally protected as men under Australia’s OHS/WHS laws?

Australia’s OHS/WHS laws apply to all employee/workers equally – the laws do not discriminate and therefore everyone’s health and safety at work is equally protected.

True or false? On the face of it: true.

The OHS/WHS laws (for the most part) do not discriminate – not between men and women, or between one set of employees and another (such as permanent or casual, labour hire, and so on).

In Victoria, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have a general duty of care to employees and contractors – and other duties to ‘others’ who may be affected by the ‘conduct of the undertaking’. In most other jurisdictions, the relationship is almost simpler – ‘persons conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBUs) have a duty of care to all ‘workers’.

The duties of employers/PCBUs – duty to consult, duty to eliminate/control hazards and risks according to the required hierarchy of hazard control, etc – apply across the board.

So, for example, this translates as there not being specific weight limits – not for men or women – where once there was a limit of 20kg for men and 16kg for women. What the laws require now is for employers/PCBUs to identify hazardous manual handling and then eliminate/minimise the risks to workers of musculoskeletal injuries. This involves identifying risk factors and eliminating/controlling them.  The weight of an object is only one of the risk factors – other factors include the worker’s posture, repetition, the nature of the object and more. Any worker, irrespective of sex, can be injured by handling/moving even a light object weighing only 5kgs.

The only regulations which do discriminate are the lead regulations – because of the effect of lead on the unborn child, women ‘of reproductive capacity’ must be excluded from lead-risk work at lower blood lead levels than men or women who are no longer ‘of reproductive capacity’.

But, of course, we know that this does not mean that everyone gets equal protection. At risk workers – ‘at risk’ for any number of reasons, including sex or employment status – in the real world of work often have lower protections.

From the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work:

[Females and males] are not the same biologically, and the jobs they do, their working conditions and circumstances and how society treats them are not the same. All these factors can affect the risks they face at work and the approach that needs to be taken to prevent these risks. More widespread recognition of the importance of taking account of gender differences in occupational health and safety (OHS) is relatively recent, although the number of initiatives seen in this area is increasing. However, especially because it is not always a very well understood area, practice needs to be exchanged and experiences shared.

Such differences can affect the hazards men and women face at work and how to assess and control them.

What Differences?

There are differences that affect the risks that men and women face. Women:

Often work in specific sectors and do specific types of work

Balance dual responsibilities at work and home

Are still underrepresented at supervisor and management level

Are physically different to men, although there is often more variation between women than between men and women, for example, in physical strength.

Do jobs that are often wrongly assumed to be safe and easy

Often these differences are not recognised in safety and health law and in practice. Further, workload and stress-related risks to women in the workplace are often underestimated.

Gender Specific Differences Between Men and Women in the Workplace

The lack of career prospects in the workplace, with better prospects for males, can reduce women’s well-being at work.  The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work refers to ‘hierarchical’ and ‘horizontal’ gender segregation which exist in the workplace, meaning that women in general, and older women specifically, are exposed to different risks than men throughout their working lives.

Hierarchical segregation means:

women’s careers are often less mobile than men’s

women tend to remain in lower-grade jobs

they can be more likely to doing the same job for a longer period of time and doing repetitive work

women have less control over their work

those in low grades are more vulnerable to abuses of power in the form of bullying and sexual harassment. In Australia, almost two in five women (39 per cent) experienced sexual harassment at work in the past 5 years compared to one in four men (26 per cent). And also of great concern, 52per cent of workers who identify as LGBTIQ (from the Fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces - Australian Human Rights Commission, 2018)

Horizontal segregation means that women and men tend to work in different sectors. For example, women, often older women, make up a larger part of the workforce in the health and social care sector, which puts them at risk of injury from lifting, as well as stress due to emotional demands and risks of violence and harassment.

Age-related changes in women’s health

In certain sectors in particular, the workforce is ageing and longer working lives can mean longer exposure to hazards at work. Women live longer than men, and so they are also likely to live for longer in poor health. Women are more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, which can cause disability and a greater risk of fractures from slips, trips and falls in the workplace.

Women earn less than men in general – the current gender pay gap in Australia is still, remarkably 13.4%. Because of this and also the fact that sectors where women dominate tend to be lower paid, many women must keep working into older age.

Increase of precarious and temporary work among women

Precarious, temporary and informal work is on the rise in general, and particularly after the pandemic, there are increasing numbers of women having to do such work.  They face increased  fear of speaking up, fear of joining unions, lack of benefits,  Furthermore, women in these jobs are at risk of harassment and violence, and their working times are often unfavourable.

Women also more frequently work part-time and in all age groups the share of women in involuntary part-time employment exceeds that of men. The gender gap is widening with age. The nature of these jobs puts women at risk of stress, and they are less likely to take part in workplace health and safety activities and consultations because they are temporary or part-time.

Psychosocial hazards

Women could be particularly of developing psychological health issues because of the type of paid work they often do (e.g. in services such as retail or the hospitality sector, caring for people in education or health care, with little control and a lack of career progression) and their multiple roles (childcare, running a household, caring for elderly relatives). This needs to be addressed through proper assessment of occupational health and safety risks in the workplace.

Dangerous substances and women’s exposure and protection

There is a lack of data specifically on women’s exposure to dangerous substances, especially for women in service sectors such as healthcare or the hospitality sector. Although there is less information on exposures typical to their jobs, risk assessment and preventive measures need to take account of working women, including those in stereotypically ‘male’ sectors. It is also important that personal protective equipment fits women properly – which it often does not.

So, while our laws purport to protect all workers, the reality is that there needs to be much more attention paid to gender equality at the workplace – not only in terms of earnings but also in occupational health and safety.