Working Women Face High Risks from Work Stress, Musculoskeletal Injuries
Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
June 1, 2000
Working women compose an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. workforce. They also face high risk from job-related stress, musculoskeletal injuries, violence, and other hazards of the modern workplace, new reports by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conclude. In many respects, the risks are higher than those for male workers.
NIOSH researchers describe their findings in two articles and an editorial in the Spring 2000 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association. The editorial provides an overview of occupational health and safety hazards for working women. One of the articles addresses work stress and women. The other article, co-written by authors from NIOSH and two other organizations, examines health and safety concerns for working women in construction.
“Many factors heighten certain risks of work-related injury, illness, and death for female workers,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H. “It is important to recognize these hazards and to keep all workers, women and men alike, safe on the job.”
Women currently make up almost half of the general U.S. workforce. In the growing health care industry, where a complex range of hazards exists, including latex allergy, back injuries, and needlestick injuries, about 80 percent of the workforce is female.
Increasingly, women are moving into occupations once held exclusively by men, such as the construction trades. In such instances, physiological differences between women and men can translate into occupational hazards, as when women operate equipment designed for male workers of larger stature.
Women workers are at disproportionately high risk for musculoskeletal injuries on the job, suffering 63 percent of all work-related repetitive motion injuries. Hazards such as radiation, glycol ethers, lead, and strenuous physical labor can affect a woman’s reproductive health, including pregnancy outcomes. Violence is also a special concern for women workers. Homicide is the leading cause of job-related death for women, and women also are at increased risk of non-fatal assault.
The NIOSH article “Working Women and Stress” finds that:
- Gender-specific work stress factors, such as sex discrimination and balancing work and family demands, may have an effect on women workers above and beyond the impact of general job stressors such as job overload and skill under-utilization.
- Discriminatory barriers to financial and career advancement have been linked to more frequent physical and psychological symptoms and more frequent visits to the doctor.
- The most effective way of reducing work stress is through organizational change in the workplace. This holds true for reducing work stress in female and male workers alike. Workplaces that actively discourage sexual discrimination and harassment, and promote family-friendly policies, appear to foster worker loyalty and attachment regardless of gender, studies indicate. Organizational changes effective for reducing job stress among women workers include expanding promotion and career ladders, introducing family-support programs and policies, and enforcing policies against sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
The article “Women in Construction: Occupational Health and Working Conditions,” finds that:
- Women may receive less on-the-job safety mentoring than men from supervisors and co-workers. This can create a potentially dangerous cycle in which tradeswomen are asked to do jobs for which they are not properly trained, then are injured when they do them or are seen as incompetent when they are unable to do them.
- Women in construction have reported harassment and verbal abuse by co-workers and isolation on the job severe enough that some women have looked for other employment.
- Patterns of work-related construction fatalities differ for men and women. For example, women construction laborers are at higher risk than male laborers of death from motor vehicle injuries, but less likely to be at risk of death from falls, machinery related injuries, or being struck by objects. Further research is needed to determine why these differences exist.
Further information on job-related stress appears in a NIOSH document, “Stress … At Work,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication 99-101, issued in 1999. Additional information on protecting the health and safety of women in construction appears in another NIOSH document, “Providing Safety and Health Protection for a Diverse Construction Workforce: Issues and Ideas,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 99-140.
For copies of those documents or for other information on the health and safety of working women, call the toll-free NIOSH information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674), or visit NIOSH on the NIOSH site.