Health and safety – is there a women’s perspective?

Tracey Harding
08 Mar 2017
Health and safety – is there a women’s perspective?

This article by Tracey Harding is taken from the May 2014 edition of Safety Management

Gender differences can have a greater impact on people’s health, safety and welfare at work than we think.

Health and safety in the workplace is all about ensuring employees leave work in the same – or better – physical, mental and emotional condition as when they arrived in the morning. We know that what happens at work affects people differently according to their size or build. However, does a difference in gender have a greater impact on our health, safety and welfare at work than we think?

International Women’s Day held in March is a timely reminder of how health and safety in the workplace can impact upon women – and what can be done to redress any negative impacts.

From periods and pregnancy through to the menopause, women are affected in ways that simply are not issues for men in the workplace. This requires employers to think differently and not to treat everyone the same. Unison calls for fair treatment for women.

Hormonal differences can affect women differently and have an impact upon their role in the workplace – oestrogen has a lot to answer for.

Monthly periods pass without issue for many women month after month, but for a significant number the monthly cycle can bring with it tiredness, mood swings, fatigue, nausea and painful cramps. Although self management is a huge factor in coping with these issues, managers should be prepared to adopt a flexible approach to work and work relationships for those who are affected in this way. Flexible working hours, the taking of ‘time off in lieu’ for a duvet day, and self management of the individual’s work programme are all ways that employers can be supportive of affected women in the workplace at this time.

Pregnancy rights are enshrined in the law but a woman must divulge her pregnant status to her employers – this doesn’t have to be the line manager but could be the HR department – in order to benefit from the paid time off for appointments and antenatal classes.

In addition to this, all employers, once alerted to a pregnancy, must assess the possible harm that could arise in the workplace and its effects on a pregnant worker. Where there are known risks to an expectant mother or child, the employer must do a risk assesment on the side of caution. In instances where the harm could be to the pregnancy itself the expectant mother should be removed from harm’s way, possibly by providing alternative employment or, if necessary, removing her from the workplace – at the employer’s expense – until the risk of harm has been eliminated.

While employers need to ensure that general risk assessments need to take into account women of child-bearing age, pregnancy risk assessments are ‘living’ documents and should be reviewed regularly at different stages of the pregnancy. Different risks may emerge at various stages of gestation – for instance, carrying a baby at 30 weeks could take a physical toll on the body that may not be apparent at 12 weeks. Employers should plan for these changes and ensure that rest areas are available and seating is adequate and supportive for the duration of the pregnancy. The body also takes some time to recover from the trauma of birth and so adjustments may need to stay in place for some time upon return to work following maternity leave.

In contrast, in older women the menopause normally occurs around the age of 50, although early onset menopause can occur at any time after puberty. However, peri-menopause – the time in which the body ‘winds down’ before the menopause – can last up to eight years. Some women may find this time both particularly challenging; not only do they have the possible physical effect to contend with – hot flashes, disturbed sleep and urinary problems – but also the emotional effects of coming to the end of their ‘child-bearing’ years. Many women feel embarrassed to approach their employers at this time of change and feel they need to suffer in silence.

We urge employers to recognise the different stages of a woman’s life, and adopt policies for fair treatment for those who suffer ill effects as a result of their gender. A little understanding and flexibility goes a long way in supporting women in the workplace. This ensures they are not disadvantaged by these life events – simply for being women.

Tracey Harding is head of health and safety at Unison. 

HSE guidance on gender.