August 17, 2023

BOHS Report Highlights “Crisis” in U.K. Women’s Occupational Health

The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) is calling for action to address what the organization describes as a “silent and growing crisis” related to the workplace health of women in the United Kingdom. In a report released earlier this month, BOHS points to statistics showing an increase in the number of women in the U.K. who are becoming sick because of workplace exposures and the likely under-reporting of work-induced illness to argue that women bear a greater burden of occupational disease than men. But efforts to monitor the problem have been inadequate, according to the report, and “urgent action” is needed to address it.

The report cites data from the U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showing that an estimated 918,000 women workers are suffering adverse health effects from work compared to 778,000 men workers. From this general observation, the report focuses on the effects of specific hazards on women workers.

For example, HSE predicts that breast cancer associated with shift work will account for the second-most registrations of new occupational cancers, following only asbestos exposures. Asbestos is itself a major contributor to women’s burden of occupational disease in the U.K., with women nurses and teachers having a higher risk of asbestos-related death than other occupations outside of construction-related industries.

And because many women perform unpaid work in the home that is similar to the kinds of work they do in their jobs, their exposures to certain hazards are higher and of greater duration. These include ergonomics hazards that could lead to musculoskeletal disorders as well as dermal, inhalation, and biological hazards, according to the report.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women workers were likely worsened by the lack of properly sized personal protective equipment, which the report describes as “a very basic failure to consider women in the appreciation of health risk.” In 2021, the rate of absence from work due to sickness was more than twice as high in women-dominated sectors such as cleaning, social care, and healthcare compared to trades that employ mostly men.

Other research shows that 40 percent of pregnant workers have not had a health and safety risk assessment. Nearly half of pregnant workers who did have a risk assessment reported that their employers took no action to reduce risks.

The report calls for the creation of a health strategy to address these issues. For more information, read “Uncovering the UK’s Hidden Crisis in Women’s Workplace Health” (PDF) and the accompanying BOHS press release.

Related: The cover article of the March 2023 Synergist identified common PPE challenges for women. Last year, a separate article identified systemic obstacles affecting the health and safety of women.

Other articles of interest discussed reproductive and developmental hazards and questioned whether occupational exposure limits protect workers from reproductive and developmental effects.