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Understanding workplace segregation and how it can affect musculoskeletal health

Workers from certain demographics, such as female, migrant and LGBTI, often work in sectors with greater musculoskeletal disorder (MSD)-related risks. This sectoral segregation means that these groups of workers are more at risk than others.


What do we mean by sectoral segregation and why does it occur?

Sectoral segregation is a type of horizontal segregation and refers to certain demographics being more likely to work in particular sectors. For example, some sectors have a disproportionately high number of female workers72% of workers in education are women, 78% in human health and social work activities, 89% in personal care, 84% in cleaning and 72% in customer services. In these sectors, workers are more likely to face client/student/patient contact as part of their daily job role. This is shown to increase the exposure to risk of stress-related disorders and MSDs.  In addition, workers are more likely to be exposed to physical risks such are lifting or moving patients, or to prolonged standing or sitting, which are directly related to MSDs.

One of the reasons for this sectoral segregation may be related to full time work versus part time work, which is more readily available in some sectors, like the ones mentioned above. Women may opt for part-time work due to the need to balance work with other responsibilities, such as child or elder care, the responsibility for which disproportionately falls on women.

Another example of sectoral segregation can be found in migrant workers, who are more likely to be employed in accommodation and food service activities, agriculture, construction, human health and social work activities. They are more likely than native-born workers to do mostly heavy labour or physically demanding work (16% versus 12%). This means they are more frequently exposed to vibrations, painful positions, and the need to carry heavy loads, stand or walk for long periods of time than native workers, all of which are risk factors for developing MSDs.

For migrant workers, factors that potentially lead to sectoral segregation include the fact that they are less likely to possess vocational qualifications, which could result in them tending to work in sectors and jobs that require predominantly manual labour and are less likely to attract workers from the hosting country. Additionally, migrant workers may have a limited knowledge of their host country’s language, leaving them with fewer options when seeking employment.

LGBTI workers, on the other hand, who are exposed to discrimination, harassment, bullying and verbal abuse more than other workers, are more likely to be segregated in sectors where these risks are reported to be lower, such as education, healthcare and the arts, which happen to also be female-dominated sectors.

What are the risks of professional segregation by job level?

Apart from the horizontal sectoral segregation described above, there is also a vertical segregation that has to be taken into account. Vertical segregation refers to workers belonging to specific groups being less likely than others to reach a higher grade or level in an organisation and to progress in their career. This segregation can affect the motivation of workers and their mental well-being, which may in turn increase the risk of MSDs.

Several studies have shown that female workers have fewer opportunities than men do to access well-paid managerial positions, resulting in lower salaries. This means that they are more exposed than their male colleagues to the risk of developing or aggravating an MSD because they are more likely to carry out the same job for a longer period. Additionally, women and men with the same job title often do not perform the same tasks, leading to different physical and psychosocial risk exposures.

Much like female workers, LGBTI workers also face the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon, finding it challenging to access higher positions. In fact, LGBTI workers are 11% less likely to hold a high managerial position.

Migrants who are highly educated are frequently employed in low-skilled jobs, which confirms that migrants are commonly left with fewer options to access better jobs in the hosting country, even when they would be qualified for them. This higher presence in low-skilled occupations results in higher levels of occupational instability and job insecurity, as well as higher risks of accidents and lower salary levels.

How can businesses protect segregated workers?

It is crucial to create and implement a comprehensive MSD prevention strategy. Doing it in a participatory way, collaborating with the groups most affected, will ensure that workers are adequately protected. In addition, ensuring that diversity-sensitive risk assessments are tailored to female, migrant and LGBTI workers can help to provide an accurate picture of the level of risk.

Governmental policy initiatives can also help to reduce the risk of MSDs for segregated workers. For example, Osalan (Basque Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) have published a toolkit called Guidelines for the integration of the gender perspective in the prevention of occupational risks’. The authors suggested that existing Spanish occupational risk prevention tools are designed from a ‘man prototype’ point of view. The toolkit aims to introduce a more inclusive approach to OSH risk prevention activities by adding a gender perspective to the discussion. Toolkits such as this can help managers to recognise a wider variety of potential OSH issues, including those that are more likely to affect certain groups.

For more information, visit the diversity priority area page for a wide range of related resources, publications and tools. Also, keep an eye out on the telework priority area page from February, when we will begin promoting resources and useful information on this topic. Make sure you also follow the campaign on social media via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up to date with the latest news.