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Why are women more exposed to MSDs? What can we do to protect them?

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can affect all workers, but women are among those who are particularly exposed to a number of work-related physical, psychosocial and organisational factors associated with the risk of developing MSDs. However, much can be done to improve working conditions for women by considering gender in occupational safety and health (OSH) policies and prevention strategies.


Why are women particularly exposed to MSD risk factors?

According to the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), 60% of women workers in the EU reported one or more MSD. A high proportion of women are employed in jobs involved with prolonged sitting (62%), the use of computers (62%), and repetitive hand or arm movements (62%) for at least a quarter of their working time – all factors linked to an increased risk of developing MSDs.

Furthermore, women frequently have jobs in which they are more likely to be exposed to a combination of physical, psychosocial and organisational risks, which can result in higher MSD prevalence and health-related issues. This is particularly true of sectors in which women have to deal with third parties (clients, patients, pupils) as part of their job. Examples include healthcare and education, social work, commerce and trade, hospitality and food services, household and cleaning services and other tertiary sectors (such as real estate, travel agencies, call centres, hairdressing and beauty salons) and the public sector. In most of these sectors, women are particularly exposed to a number of organisational and psychosocial risk factors that can lead to MSDs, including:

  • Discrimination, bullying, harassment and verbal abuse;
  • Lack of career opportunities, pay gaps;
  • Work-life conflicts, particularly for homemakers;
  • Prevailing male-dominated perspective on occupational diseases and OSH issues, including prevention;
  • Work-related stress and emotional demands.

A diverse workforce needs diverse solutions

Women workers are exposed to increased MSD risk factors because work equipment, tools and personal protective equipment (PPE) have been traditionally designed for the male body size and shape. If work equipment is not the correct design or is set up wrongly this can lead to poor working posture, leading to an increased risk of MSDs.

An effective way to combat this issue is to use diversity-sensitive risk assessment that takes account of gender and is tailored to the needs and characteristics of the worker performing the task or role. Work equipment and work organisation should always be in line with the worker’s needs, not the other way round.

Training and awareness raising are also needed to improve workplace safety and health for women. In Sweden, the Swedish Work Environment Authority (SWEA — Arbetsmiljöverket) launched an initiative to reduce the risks of women developing MSDs. Under the initiative, labour inspectors were given training in mainstreaming gender into their everyday practices. Inspections targeted workplaces and sectors in which women predominate, and inspectors initiated discussions with employers where risk prevention measures were found to be inadequate. Although successful, change is also needed at the political level to mainstream gender in policymaking and involve women in the decision-making process.

Healthy workplaces for all

Taking account of gender is key to healthy and productive workplaces, and to reducing the often-preventable exposure of women to MSD risk factors. Ensuring a healthy workplace for all workers is also a legal requirement, as set out in the European Union’s OSH Framework Directive, which emphasises the need to ‘adapt the work to the individual.

To learn more about the topic, visit our latest priority area on worker diversity where you will find a wide range of resources, publications, and practical tools and guidance on the topic. Over the coming weeks we will also be publishing more news items related to worker diversity, so make sure to check back regularly. You can also be alerted about our latest news and events by following us on our social media channels, on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.