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Gender and dangerous substances: Promoting safety and inclusivity in the workplace

Dangerous substances are a hazard to all workers. However, some groups, such as women, may be more vulnerable to exposure than others. This is due, in particular, to a lack of female-orientated research in the area and the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of risk assessments and preventive measures. 

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Why can women be more vulnerable to dangerous substances than men?

Men and women are concentrated in different sectors; men work more in industry and women in services. And in many workplaces, such as those involving manual labour or service-based duties, men and women are required to complete different jobs or tasks which could mean that they are exposed to different dangerous substances.

Contact with dangerous chemicals, such as formaldehyde, cytostatic drugs, biocides, hair dyes and some biological agents, occurs in female-dominated service sectors such as healthcare, cosmetology, catering, care work and the cleaning industry. This means that women are exposed to these substances more often than men. However, research suggests that the exposure is less often monitored and addressed than in male-dominated industrial jobs.

Most research on dangerous substances has been focused on the ‘default’ basis of an average male worker, and less has been carried out on the specific effects on, and risks to, women´s health, taking into account differences in physiology and metabolism. A poor understanding of reprotoxic agents, for example, means that many chemicals could have a hormonal, menstrual or menopausal impact that is not yet assessed.

There is evidence to suggest that exposure to pesticides and industrial chemicals is linked to the development of breast cancer, a disease that is steadily on the rise. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 million women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020.

The planning, organisation, implementation and evaluation of safety and health actions by many companies is gender-neutral, meaning that decisions may not reflect the requirements of the female workers.

Considering a gender-sensitive approach to the management of dangerous substances

In order to protect all workers, regardless of gender, companies must take a gender-sensitive approach to managing dangerous substances, and to occupational safety and health in general. A number of concrete actions can be taken to create a safe workspace for all workers.

Workplace risk assessment is critical to prevent health risks involving dangerous substances, but if it doesn’t apply to all workers then issues can arise. By readdressing the way that a risk assessment is written and conducted, such as removing any unconscious gender bias and avoiding assumptions of who may be exposed, companies can make them more robust. Furthermore, training the people conducting the assessments on gender-related issues can help to make a risk assessment more inclusive.

Another idea is to review all existing company safety and health documents, such as safety checklists, with a gender-sensitive eye. It can also be beneficial to revise established preventive measures to assess whether they are suitable for both male and female workers, and check that they are fully implemented in workplaces with female employees.

Consulting with female workers, and ensuring they have access to relevant information, training and preventive services can help to highlight any underlying issues or gaps in knowledge. Raising awareness and highlighting the specific areas in which dangerous substances could be a risk can help promote an inclusive culture of prevention in the workplace.

Often, personal protective equipment (PPE) in workplaces has been designed with the average male worker in mind. Make sure to check all PPE to ensure that both men and women are fully protected when using it and that it is available to both. Guidance on whether items of PPE are suitable for women has been published in a joint initiative between the Ontario Women’s Directorate and the Industrial Accident Prevention Association.

A mindful consideration of the differences between genders – also known as ‘gender mainstreaming’   is crucial in maintaining a safe and healthy working environment for every worker. This consideration can be implemented at all levels; within national and European policy, within company strategy, and within day-to-day operations. By recognising that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and that men and women have different safety and health requirements, companies can be more effective at preventing exposure to dangerous substances.

You can read more about the topic on OSHwiki, as well as by keeping up-to-date with the Healthy Workplaces Campaign. Don’t forget to follow the campaign on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (#EUhealthyworkplaces).