Women's safety and health issues at work

08 January 2012

Globally, the workforce has changed in the last 50 years. Though men still outnumber women in the workforce, the percentage of women working has increased steadily, from 34% in the 1950s to 60% today.

Women are now marrying later in life, staying in school longer, delaying childbirth, and having fewer children than in previous years. More women are choosing to continue working, while also balancing their traditional parenting responsibilities.

Women face different workplace health challenges to men. This is partly because men and women tend to have different kinds of jobs.

Women generally have more work-related cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, respiratory diseases, infectious and parasitic diseases, and anxiety and stress disorders. Social, economic, and cultural factors also put women at risk of injury and illness. For example, women are more likely than men to do contingent work: part-time, temporary, or contract work. Compared to workers in traditional job arrangements, contingent workers have lower incomes and fewer benefits. Like all workers in insecure jobs, women may fear that bringing up a safety issue could result in job loss or more difficult work situations. They may also be less likely to report a work-related injury.

Within our workforce, immigrant and refugee women are a particularly at-risk group. They face barriers related to their immigrant or refugee status as well as issues in balancing work, home, and family. Compared to native-born women, immigrant/refugee women work in industries and jobs with much higher injury rates. Sexist treatment and gender discrimination in the workplace can affect a woman's physical and mental health. Sexual harassment can lead to or contribute towards conditions such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, alienation, insomnia, nausea, headaches and increased infections.

Balancing work and family tasks can put additional stress on women, who in many families still take primary responsibility for childcare and eldercare. When family and work demands collide, the resulting stress can lead to physical health problems such as poor appetite, lack of sleep, increase in blood pressure, fatigue, and increased susceptibility to infection. It can also result in mental health problems such as burnout and depression.

Learn more about these issues and other issues concerning women workers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.


The Mowbray branch of the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) is advocating that women have Pap smears to tackle the fight against cervical cancer. These tests are typically very expensive, but CANSA is offering the test at R20 per person. The test must be booked in advance and interested women may call the local CANSA office at 021 689 5381.

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