In the United States, women are 46% of the paid workforce1 and have one-third of the compensated occupational health and safety problems, resulting in 81% of claims on a per hour basis.2 Although employed women live longer than unemployed women and housewives,3 risk factors present in some jobs may adversely affect women's health. Action to improve women's occupational health has been slowed by a notion that women's jobs are safe2 and that any health problems identified among women workers can be attributed to unfitness for the job, hormonal factors, or unnecessary complaining.
In the past, little research in occupational health has concerned women.4,5 However, the rise in the number of women in the labor force has sensitized public health practitioners, workers, and scientists to the necessity to include women's concerns in their occupational health activities.6 Recently, various institutions and governments have become interested in women's occupational health, and the amount of research specifically on women is growing.7,8
Methods for examining women's occupational health are being developed, and gender comparisons are becoming more common.9,10 However, as interest grows, it is also necessary to consider the implications of using sex (biological differences) or gender (socially based differences) routinely as explanatory variables in occupational health research. From an equity perspective, it is also important to understand the causes of sex and gender differences in occupational health so that they not be used erroneously to justify job segregation or inequitable health promotion measures.5
Potential causes of sex differences in occupational health outcomes are multiple and are discussed below: job and employment patterns, biological specificity, and societal attitudes.
In the discussion about women that follows, many of the remarks will apply to some degree to other groups that have been subject to discrimination because of age, race/ethnicity, or social class.11,12,13 Belonging to any of these categories may affect exposure to workplace hazards and create a context that affects responses to the hazards. Since each of these has its own interactions with work environment and health effects, only women will be discussed here.
WOMEN WORKERS AND THEIR JOBS
Women are in different industries from men. Men are more prominent in primary (raw materials) and secondary (production) sectors of the economy, while women are more often in the tertiary (service) sector.14 Women are more likely to work for small companies.15
Women usually work in specific types of jobs in all countries where this has been studied. For example, in Québec, Canada, only one profession (retail salesperson) is found among the 10 most common jobs of women as well as among the 10 most common men's jobs. Both women and men most often work among a majority of their own sex (Table 44-1). In ...