Physical Exposures in Work Commonly Done by Women

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The North American work force is still highly sex-segregated, with most members of each sex in jobs composed primarily of workers of the same sex. This division is accentuated when jobs involve physical demands. Women have traditionally been assigned to tasks whose physical demands are considered to be light. Nevertheless, these tasks can have biological effects, sometimes serious. Phenomena related to physical demands of women’s work can be considered in three categories: (a) musculoskeletal and cardiovascular demands of tasks often assigned to women in factories and service work; (b) sex- and gender-specific effects of toxic substances found in the workplace; and (c) interactions between work and the domestic responsibilities of many women. These phenomena are described, using examples recently gathered from workplaces. Effects of biological sex are distinguished, as far as possible, from effects of gender (social roles). 

It is not always easy in practice to distinguish between sex and gender effects. For example, many clinicians attribute differences in profiles of sports injuries to male and female knee anatomy (Fulkerson and Arendt, 2000; Huston et al., 2000; Kirkendall and Garrett, 2000). Examining these studies re- veals that differences in injury profile seem to have been ascribed to sex before considering possible differences in exposure. For example, cited studies often in- volve “athletes” but results are not broken down by sport. Since women and men do not practice the same sports in the same numbers, sex differences in injury rates do not only reflect biological differences between the sexes. In the absence of information on differential exposures of males and females, explanations for dif- ferences center on anatomic specificities.

The question of whether biological differences completely explain pheno- type differences such as health disparities between women and men has a long history (Emslie et al., 1999; Fausto-Sterling, 2000; Spitzer et al., 2004). In the case of occupational health, the information needed to answer the question can be categorised as follows:


  1. What are the extent and pattern of work related health differences between women and men workers?

  2. To what extent are apparent differences due to artefacts of institutional rec- ognition, e.g., differences in medical diagnoses (Alexanderson, 1998) or in workers’ compensation decisions (Lippel, 1999, 2000)?

  3. To what extent are these differences due to hormonal or other factors largely determined by the chromosomal complement (sex differences)? 

  4. To what extent are these differences due to education, training, and other social forces that induce males and females to adopt different roles in soci- ety, to be perceived differently by others, and to respond to stimuli in differ- ent ways (gender differences)?

  5. To what extent are these differences due to differential exposure to factors in the physical or social environment at work?

  6. To what extent are these differences due to interactions between the physical or social work environment and sex or gender differences?

  7. This paper will concentrate on information gathered from ergonomic studies, which bears primarily on Questions 5 and 6. The employment context of women and men will be summarised as well as some ways in which their specific insertion in the job market translates into physical job demands. -



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