What women want

Over the last 50 years, according to Statistics Canada, one of the major social trends in the country is the increasing participation of women in the paid workforce. Today, women account for 47 per cent of Canada’s employed.

The same trend is seen in many developed countries across the world. Like Canada, women in the U.S. and the U.K. make up nearly half of their general workforce.
As a daughter of a working mother and a working mom myself, this report comes as no surprise to me. It’s a natural consequence of the monumental right bestowed upon women in the beginning of the 20th century — the right to vote in an election. After that, the quest for equal rights between men and women forged ahead.

The nature of work has also been changing for many women. While most women are still entering the traditional female professions such as teaching, nursing and administrative occupations, non-traditional employment such as those in the manufacturing and construction sectors have increasingly been getting their share of women workers.

In 2006, 31 per cent of workers in manufacturing are women. While they only account for seven per cent of workers in the transportation, trades and construction sectors, the representation of women in these categories has been increasing since the 1980s, according to Statistics Canada.

With more women moving into jobs that were traditionally male-dominated, experts say the biological and physiological differences between the two genders may have health and safety consequences.

For instance, when women operate equipment designed for male workers with larger physique, they may be at risk of physical or musculoskeletal injuries. The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says other hazards in the workplace can negatively affect women’s reproductive health, such as exposure to radiation, glycol ethers, lead and strenuous physical labour.

It is not to say that male workers are not susceptible to these types of hazard. But the level of risks for certain workplace hazards may be different for women than it is for men. Employers need to recognize those differences and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that everyone in the workplace is properly protected.

Britain’s Trade Union Congress, which represents nearly seven million of the country’s workforce, has produced a “gender-sensitivity” checklist to help workplace health and safety managers gauge the effectiveness of their safety policies and procedures relative to gender differences.

The checklist is a series of questions for companies to determine whether their policies allow gender-related discussions and actions, identify gaps in policies and create a workplace environment that fits all.

Some might suggest that advocating for a gender-sensitive workplace runs counter to the idea that men and women are created equal. What men can do, the women can do just as capably, right?

It’s true that women have proven again and again that they can equally compete with and surpass their male counterpart — on a level playing field.

Creating a workplace health and safety program that effectively works for both male and female workers is I would consider a level workplace playing field. Under such conditions, men and women are equally protected from varying degrees of risks and hazards.

The changing face of the workforce is a trend that health and safety professionals should be closely following. A gender-sensitivity checklist is good to have, but engaging the workers about their health and safety issues is an even better way of finding out where the gaps in safety may exist.

If you work in a company that has traditionally had more male workers but are starting to hire more female employees, take a look at your joint health and safety committee. How many women members do you have?

The same goes for female-dominated professions that now have more male workers than before. Make sure both genders have a voice in safety discussions. You never know what might come up during these meetings. Your problem-solving process might just get a little more interesting.
Mari-Len De Guzman is the editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine. You can contact her at [email protected]