Working women are becoming more prevalent every year as the traditional gender role stereotype, that men work and women stay home to raise the family, is quickly fading away. In fact, the 2014 Department of Labor statistics data shows that of the approximately 128 million working age women (16 years of age and older) in the US, 57.2% have full- or part-time jobs, compared to 34% in the 1950s. Interestingly, the labor force participation rate of women has slightly declined since its peak of 60% in 1999, but the actual number of employed women will grow by 5.4% by 2022.
Female employees represent approximately 45% of the hours worked in 2014, yet only accounted for 8% of the fatal work injuries, which may be partly explained by the nature and relative danger levels associated with the types of jobs typically performed by women (e.g., healthcare, education) versus men (e.g., construction, manufacturing). That said, workplace deaths among women rose 13% from 2013 (319) to 2014 (359), and they experience about one-third of all nonfatal injuries and illnesses. Although women are injured at work less often than men, some safety incident types are disproportionately more frequent for women. In addition, women face some unique workplace health and safety issues that must be addressed by organizations.
The most common causes of workplace deaths for women in 2014 include:
Homicides (19%): Although this is not directly related to operational safety performance behaviors, female employees need to feel a sense of security in their work environments, so organizations should make every available effort to bar potentially violent individuals from entering their work sites and/or coming in contact with employees.
Roadway accidents (19%): This is not a bad joke about women drivers, 23% of male workplace fatalities involved vehicles. While not much can be done about weather conditions and other drivers on the road, it is critical that all transportation workers, particularly commercial drivers, receive regular roadway safety training to improve their skills and be prepared for any situation they may encounter.
Falls, slips, and trips (16%): These types of incidents often occur in indoor settings, where women tend to work. Training employees to be more aware of their surroundings and exhibit greater caution on the job can reduce the frequency of these avoidable deaths by improving their safety behaviors related to these safety blind spots.
Struck by object or equipment (4%): Women who work in industries with greater natural hazards such as construction and manufacturing must be provided with adequate training to operate and work around heavy machinery/equipment, including following all safety rules and guidelines to prevent adding unnecessary risk to already dangerous jobs.
Other notable workplace deaths tend to occur in “nontraditional” jobs for females, such as plant work where employees can be exposed to harmful chemicals, and fires/explosions are more likely to happen.
Nonfatal injuries and illnesses that women experience more often than men include musculoskeletal disorders (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis), respiratory diseases, infectious and parasitic diseases, reproductive disorders due to chemical exposures, healthcare-specific incidents such as needlesticks, and anxiety and stress disorders. These do not occur just a function of job type, women also experience more work-family conflict than men, which refers to the way that one’s stressors and demands at home can negatively impact performance and well-being at work, or vice versa. Approximately 70% of women with children under the age of 18, and 75% of single mothers, are currently in the workforce, so some of you reading this know all too well how difficult it can be to simultaneously manage motherhood and career
In addition, women regularly encounter hostile work environments in which they may be unfairly treated and/or sexually harassed by coworkers and supervisors who hold antiquated biases against women concerning their general presence at work and abilities to successfully perform their jobs. This can cause female employees to be reluctant to report safety concerns for fear of retaliation, which is particularly salient for immigrant female workers in the US, who have remarkably high injury rates compared to native female workers. Furthermore, a hostile work environment can be distracting for female employees, which can lead to reduced safety performance behaviors and ultimately a safety incident.
As more women enter the workforce, their accident and injury rates will correspondingly increase unless managers and safety leaders take action to reduce the common workplace hazards for women (e.g., implementing forced breaks from typing to reduce the potential for carpal tunnel), and adjust their safety performance behaviors related to their most frequent safety blind spots.
I also cannot underemphasize the importance of meeting the needs of female employees in traditionally male-dominated industries, wherein which women are often discriminated against via lack of skills and safety training, being kept out of the loop regarding organizational information sharing, and not being provided appropriate safety equipment, such as PPE which is usually made for an average size male. The goal here is not to provide special treatment for women, rather that management ensures equal safety precautions for all workers, and that the most common hazards women face at work are addressed through safety training.