Occupational health

Occupational hazards for women

Extracts from the occupational hazards section of the Anthology, on women, health and the environment, published in 1994, WHO/EHG/94.11.

© 2000 World Health Organization

women anthology cover


The studies compiled here have been selected from a comprehensive anthology on women which originally concerns water, nutrition and agriculture, housing and shelter, domestic fuel shortage and indoor air pollution. The last section on occupational hazards is the focus here and only a fraction of the myriad hazards faced by women in their paid and unpaid work is addressed. Of those selected, some address actual or potential health effects arising directly from exposure to specific hazards (pesticides, neurotoxins, psychological and ergonomic stressors, cyanide); others stress the dearth of information on the health effects of work allocated to women.

Conditions which may lead to permanent chronic ill-health in women are low social and economic status combined with poor environmental conditions which often include outdoor work. Studies on psychosocial adverse and ergonomic factors in the workplace are completed by two more recent articles stating a number of facts. Their focus is not exclusively on women, but of a more general nature.

Articles include the following key points:

  • Pesticide exposure and reproductive outcomes: to investigate the reproductive risks and outcomes from exposure to toxic substances is methodologically difficult, but essential, given the rapidly increasing use of chemicals in industry and agriculture.
  • Exposure to neurotoxins in the microelectronics industry: behavioural problems in women traditionally attributed to mass hysteria may result from occupational exposure to neurotoxins.
  • Psychological and ergonomic stressors in garment workers: repetitive motions and fast work speed in factories or at home are increasingly linked to physical and psychological ailments. The study concludes that more pieceworkers are disabled than fixed wage workers, and repetitive strain injury is common among assembly line workers.
  • Health consequences of 'maquiladora' work: subjective and social factors appear to be an important determinant of women's health status in Mexico. This is a consideration often neglected in epidemiological studies.
  • Repetitive strain injury and occupational tasks: this disease is real and affects a large number of women. Changes in the work organisation can only temporarily alleviate painful symptoms. Therefore, work environments which provoke these, have to be identified before the disease develops.
  • Silicosis in Swedish women: silicosis in women, although rare in developed countries, is usually contracted in the pottery industry and tends to progress more rapidly in women than in men. Many women in developing countries are exposed to silica dust through pottery work or hand-grinding grain.
  • Cassava processing and cyanide poisoning: the importance of exposure monitoring and protective measures is outlined for this agricultural process dangerous to women's health.
  • Fetal protection policies: "fetal protection" policies often serve to protect the employer rather than the employee or the fetus.

Some facts on:

  • Why consider psychosocial factors in the workplace?: this articles gives a general overview of the importance and the current understanding of the concept of stress. A multiple array of contributing factors is outlined, which points to the fact that mental stress is a concept which lacks clarity as to cause-effect relationships at this point.
  • Musculo-skeletal disorders: Improving ergonomics at the workplace: this includes current definitions of some major musculo-skeletal disorders, an overview of the financial health implications, as well as practical tips for low-cost improvements.