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Women and Workplace Safety: A Closer Look at the Data

Author: John F. Martin (Washington DC)

Published Date: September 26, 2017

According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), women are less likely than men to incur workplace injuries, but the injuries reported by women are disproportionately unique to female employees. In the following four questions and answers, we go behind the numbers to take a closer look at what the data means.  

Q: Have you found the results of this study—indicating that women are less likely to get injured on-the-job—to be true?

A: As a whole, women are less likely to incur workplace injuries than men. The BLS report notes the following with respect to fatal work injuries:

In 2015, 4,836 fatal work injuries were reported in the United States—4,492 men and 344 women. Transportation incidents were the leading cause for both women (45 percent) and men (42 percent). These include incidents on roadways and incidents involving aircraft, rail, and water transportation. Violence and other injuries by persons or animals caused 24 percent of fatal occupational injuries to women; the second most common cause of fatal work injuries to men was falls, slips, and trips (17 percent).

Q: What accounts for these disparities?

A: Some of the data may be explained by the kinds of jobs performed by men and women in the United States. The BLS publishes industry and occupational statistics every year that break down employed persons by sex, race, and ethnicity. There are certain industries (see chart 3 here), such as logging, construction, and structural iron and steelwork, to name a few, that have high fatality and injury rates every year. Women tend not to work in those industries. Women make up about 3 percent of loggers, 9 percent of construction workers, and 2 percent of iron and steelworkers.

On the other hand, women make up over 75 percent of the healthcare industry’s workforce and 72 percent of “office and administrative support” occupations. The healthcare industry sees more than its fair share of injuries and workplace violence, though not “active shooter” violence, which is actually a small percentage of workplace violence incidents. Instead, think of patient-on-nurse violence—for example, the cranky, drugged-up patient in a hospital who stubbornly refuses to allow the nurse to check his blood pressure and hits her on the head. (Ask any nurse how often something like this happens.)

The high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome affecting office and clerical workers—sitting at a desk and typing at a computer for 40 hours per week—is not surprising. Also unsurprising are musculoskeletal injuries for waitstaff, of whom 70 percent are female. Waitstaff lift heavy trays of food and drink, and may be on their feet for entire shifts.

Q: Besides musculoskeletal injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, or back and neck injuries, what other types of injuries are commonly reported by female employees?

A: Workplace violence (such as patient-on-nurse violence in the healthcare field) is a category of injury that disproportionately affects women. Exposure to blood and blood-borne pathogens (due to needle sticks) in healthcare is an injury that tends to be more commonly reported by women than men, but again, women make up 75 percent of the healthcare industry’s workforce. There are also injuries from machines in the manufacturing industry, such as hair getting caught in pinch points, but that is not unique to women (men get their hair or clothing caught, too). Most manufacturers require hair to be tied back or kept in a net.

It should also be noted that most Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on the books address only protection from physical injuries, not mental injuries. It is possible that there are more anxiety and stress cases affecting men and women alike, but they are difficult for OSHA to enforce because of the difficulty in establishing the anxiety or stress is work-related. 

Q: What steps can employers take to prevent their employees—especially female employees—from getting injured while on the job?

A: This is not unique to women—one of the primary factors in workplace incidents is inattentiveness to risk for the sake of convenience. Have you ever stood on the top step of a ladder to change the batteries on a smoke alarm at home? Or have you ever hammered a nail without safety glasses on a DIY project? People fall into the “this will only take a second” or “I’m a careful person, I won’t get hurt” mentality and ignore risk. The risk may be small, but the odds eventually catch up with someone. Ninety-nine out of 100 people may accomplish a task the unsafe way without incident, but for the 100th person the outcome can be catastrophic. Don’t take that chance, even if the risk is small and it takes more time to do it the right way. Your life and well-being are worth it. At work, it is always worth the extra few minutes to review the safety rules and procedures for a task to refresh your memory and make sure you’ve covered your bases.

Second (and not unique to women): Get involved in your company’s safety program. Read the safety handbook you received at orientation and adhere to it. Ask questions if you are not sure how to follow the rules set out by your company. Participate in safety meetings. Communicate with the in-house local safety personnel. Notify them of workplace conditions you think may be unsafe. If your company has a safety committee, read its minutes and keep yourself apprised of what the committee is doing.

John F. Martin  (Washington DC)

John F. Martin
John Martin focuses his practice on occupational safety and health compliance and litigation. He serves as national OSHA counsel for three publicly-traded companies, and has over 15 years of experience in defending employers in federal court and before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC). John has defended clients in 18 states and counsels clients on developing safety programs to eliminate and reduce workplace injuries. John also consults employers and industry groups on...

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