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Sustainable work: understanding the implications of gender and age

Europe’s ageing workforce requires occupational safety and health (OSH) strategies to consider the different challenges facing men and women in order to properly inform policy, debate and future research on sustainable work.


EU-OSHA has recently published an info sheet and an executive summary on ‘Women and the ageing workforce: implications for occupational safety and health’. It highlights the need to consider age-related changes linked to biological differences, what can be done to address the OSH risks relating to gender and age, and how employers can play their part.

Changing demographics are making age-related OSH strategies a crucial tool in ensuring that people stay in work longer, which in turn, helps companies remain competitive. Perhaps less understood is the need to consider how gender and age interact in relation to OSH and sustainable work.

A well-balanced OSH strategy needs to be both age and gender sensitive. In this article we focus primarily on female workers because different measures may be needed to maintain and improve the OSH of this group of workers, in particular those balancing work and care responsibilities, those with emotionally demanding jobs, or those involved in more physical work for example.

Women also have a higher risk of contracting chronic health conditions such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. However, most chronic conditions are controllable and with small workplace changes like adapting equipment, adjusting working hours or transferring tasks, many problems can be alleviated.

Simple ergonomic measures to reduce workloads, for example lifting aids, have a positive impact on young and older workers, the only difference being that whereas they facilitate work for younger workers, they often make the work possible for older workers. It is vital that the jobs of young and older women workers are not overlooked when such ergonomic interventions are introduced to make work easier and therefore more sustainable. This lifelong approach to sustainable work is also crucial to preventing future risks and should form part of risk education for school children.

Employers also have a role to play in incorporating gender dimensions into risk assessment and strategy development, when promoting sustainable work and tackling risks at source. This includes specific advice to address OSH risks found in sectors and jobs where women predominate: for example health care, education, and retail work. However, gender issues should not be overlooked in making work more sustainable in sectors where men predominate, such as construction.

Older female workers can face double discrimination. It’s important that they are viewed as valuable assets. This can be addressed through awareness raising. Simple measures like reducing work demands will often benefit workers of all ages and both genders.

The International Labour Organization has produced ‘A guide on the employment of older women workers in Estonia’ which draws attention to various tested methods used by different types of organisations to combat discrimination. The guide encourages arranging workshops for training and to raise awareness about recruiting and managing older women workers.

Although employers can already take steps to improve gender-related OSH issues, more research and practical tools are needed to better understand the intersection between age and gender in relation to OSH and sustainable work.

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