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Women’s health at work is more important than ever: female employment is on the rise and the gender pay gap is decreasing so keeping the female workforce happy and healthy is key to keeping businesses operating and families functional. Despite this, attitudes to occupational health and wellbeing are outdated and health and safety agendas within the workplace continue to shy away from topics relating to women’s health. Differences between men and women exist on physical, psychological and sociological levels, yet health and safety agendas often fail to recognise this, leaving women in a vulnerable position. So in order to ensure a healthy future, women must be tuned into their health and ultimately must know what to expect from their employers.
Physical differences: uniforms and protective equipment are often designed for a man of average build and height, which may put female workers at unnecessary risk from physical exposure. Furthermore, all workers should have appropriate manual handling training to prevent unnecessary injury, but female workers are at particular risk: anatomical differences between men and women leave female workers more susceptible to injury due to handling heavy loads. Pregnancy, menstruation and the menopause are all natural processes which occur in the lifetime of a working woman and require accommodation at work for the health risks posed; for instance, more frequent toilet trips, availability to attend antenatal appointments or avoiding prolonged periods of standing.
Social differences between the sexes can pose health risks too: caring or home responsibilities such as housework can double the exposure of female workers to chemicals or heavy lifting placing the employee at further risk. Risk management at home is your own responsibility, but many women are unaware that these hazards even exist; health and safety agendas in the workplace often fail to take this into account or counsel employees about how risks can be managed and minimised.
There are rules in place to ensure that every workplace with five or more employees has a written policy setting out a general approach to health and safety at work. Such policies should include an equality statement recognising sex differences and describing what an employer will do to address women’s health concerns specific to the working environment. Despite this, in a recent government survey, one in 25 mothers left their job because of identified health risks not being tackled; this is a worrying statistic indeed: the maintenance of health and wellbeing at work should not be an obstacle for working mums to return to, and remain in, employment.
In order to work towards a healthy future, both personally and professionally, working women must feel able to access the resources available to them. Your manager, your health and safety representative, or in larger companies your occupational health department, are all good sources of information and will be able to advise you should you have concerns or queries. But to get the best out of these resources, the process starts with you: proactively recognising ill health and personal risk and engaging with your employer to initiate change. By working for a healthier you, you work for a healthier future; professionally, personally and sustainably.
*Dr Natalie Green is a Medical Education Fellow at imperial College London with a specialist interest in Occupational Medicine. She is also a working mum. She will be writing occasionally for Workingmums.co.uk on women’s occupational health issues.