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How to be gender-sensitive when tackling MSDs in the workplace

To protect workers from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and make workplaces safe and healthy for all, businesses need to consider the diversity of their workforce. International Women’s Day took place this week providing an opportunity to reflect upon how employers can ensure that their MSD prevention strategies take into account the gender dimension to protect all workers.

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A wide variety of elements point towards the fact that women are exposed to a high risk of developing occupational safety and health (OSH) issues. The European Working Conditions Survey found that the prevalence of MSDs is higher among women than men. Female workers are more likely to develop one or more MSD-related health problem, including backache (reported by 45%), muscle pain in the shoulders, neck and upper limbs (reported by 44%) and the lower limbs (30%). Whereas 56% of men suffer from one or more MSD-related health problem, 60 % of female workers in the EU reported one or more MSDs.

Understanding the risks for women

So why is there a higher prevalence of MSDs among women? The answer lies in several reasons related to the characteristics of jobs and tasks carried out predominantly by female workers.

For example, many female-dominated sectors and occupations involve tasks that put workers more at risk of developing MSDs, especially those involving repetitive hand and arm movements, frequent kneeling, awkward positions, prolonged periods of sitting, static postures, or the need to lift or move heavy loads, including people. Considering these risk factors, the list of jobs most at risk would involve those in the food processing and textile and garment industries, healthcare and office-based jobs, as well as the hairdressing and education sectors.

Statistically speaking, women are also often exposed to a higher level of psychosocial risk at work, such as verbal abuse, sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying from co-workers, managers and third parties. These factors contribute to a loss of confidence, reduced self-esteem, emotional turmoil, depression, and anxiety, all of which have been associated with a higher probability to develop MSDs.

Organisational factors often contribute to the issue.  Some indicators show that the physical workload in certain female-dominated jobs is not proportional to the time needed to carry out the tasks involved. In the food processing industry, female manual workers are over exposed to a high level of work intensity, increasing discomfort in the upper body and resulting in low back pain and injuries. In the cleaning sector for example, female workers often need to work at a very high speed, which might increase the risk of MSDs in their upper limbs.

At EU level, there is a persisting imbalance in terms of  career opportunities for women, which often means that they remain in the same role for longer than their male counterparts do. The gender pay gap, which stands at 14.1% in the EU (and has only changed minimally over the last decade), is also a source of stress and anxiety, worsening the problem.

A lack of representation for women at a higher level in organisational hierarchies (less than 29% of board members in the largest publicly listed companies in the EU are women) results in a default male-dominated perspective when it comes to design measures to tackle occupational diseases and other OSH issues. This narrow perspective does not take into consideration the diversity of the EU workforce, and, in particular, the specific needs of female workers.

Viewing MSDs through a gender-sensitive lens

To make work safe for everyone, businesses must fully recognise and incorporate the diversity dimension and, in particular, the gender perspective in their OSH prevention strategies. This includes the commitment to take gender issues on board and avoiding making assumptions linked to gender based stereotypes.

Businesses should carry out gender-sensitive risk assessments to identify hazards for all workers, addressing the full spectrum of gender issues, including organisational and psychosocial factors, representation in decision-making positions and responsibilities at work and home. Employers should strive to offer flexibility at work, which will help to reduce stress. As a result, the risk of developing an MSD as a female worker will be lessened.

Ultimately, the most accurate picture of gender-based MSD risks in the workplace can be gained through engagement with workers at all levels. Discussing problems faced by all parties involved can help to provide a better understanding of key workplace issues that are causing workers to develop and increase MSDs.

For more information on the relevance of gender to the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders, visit the facts and figures priority area on the Healthy Workplaces campaign website. You can also learn more about International Women’s Day and the importance of taking a gender-sensitive approach on OSH. Finally, don’t forget to follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.