Health and safety for women in the workplace

Female medical researcher in lab

Health and safety for women in the workplace

2 March 2020

Celebrating our workforce on International Women's Day

Women make up 55% of the University of Bristol’s workforce. The University was the first higher education institute in England to admit women on an equal basis to men, and in 1931, Miss Winifred Shapland became the first woman Registrar of any British university. We continue to strive for gender equality in the workplace.

To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, we've acknowledged important gender differences for health and safety along with tips for maintaining a safe and healthy work environment for women.

Work-related stress

According to HSE data, women have significantly higher rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety, the most significant cause of work-related ill health in the UK.

Reasonable pressure at work can be positive and help you to thrive, but you may experience work-related stress if pressure exceeds your capacity to cope.

If you are concerned about work-related stress, you can visit the wellbeing page for a range of courses and learning resources.

If you are a line manager, you can:

Chemical exposures

Bristol is at the cutting edge of global research, and the work carried out by our staff could involve a wide range of substances and chemicals. Pregnant or breastfeeding women can be at higher risk from exposure to certain types of chemicals.

Some chemicals carry specific risks for an unborn child or can be transferred to infants through breastmilk, or harm fertility.

These substances need special consideration when being handled to prevent exposure to women who may be susceptible to the harmful effects:

  • Look out for chemicals labelled with the Health Hazard Symbol and Hazard Statements H340, H341, H360, H361 and H362.
  • Women working with hazardous chemicals who become pregnant should consider informing their line manager or SSA at an early stage to allow additional precautions to be put in place to protect them.
  • Make sure risk assessments clearly identify chemicals which may pose a genetic or reproductive hazard and ensure all staff have been informed of the risks and precautions to take when handling these substances.

Read our guidance for chemical exposures and new and expectant mothers.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

The world was not designed for women. From office spaces to science gear, we can find evidence of gender differences in workplace design and equipment. That’s why it is so important to get personal protective equipment (PPE) that fits.

The Women’s Engineering Society found only 29% of women wore PPE specifically designed for women. Worryingly, 62% of women in research and development occupations reported their PPE hampered their work. Pregnancy and menopause both introduce additional difficulties with proper fit and comfort.

When operating equipment or handling chemicals, oversized clothing becomes a safety hazard, wearing gloves that don’t fit makes it difficult to grip or work accurately, and incorrectly fitted respiratory protective equipment (RPE) will not adequately protect you.

Ill-fitting PPE can prevent women from being able to do their jobs and causes issues with safety. To make sure you are protected:

  • Look for suppliers who offer a range of sizes for both men and women.
  • Try several sizes and types of PPE to ensure you get the best fit.
  • If you need to wear RPE, make sure it is face fit tested by a competent tester to ensure you are fully protected when wearing it. Alpha S by Alpha Solway is an example of RPE designed for smaller faces.
  • If you find PPE is unsuitable, let us know. Provide feedback to your line manager or SSA so an alternative can be sourced.

Display screen equipment (DSE) during pregnancy

There are extra hazards associated with work for expectant mothers, including whilst you are working at your desk and using display screen equipment (DSE).

When you are pregnant, your tummy will expand, and you will experience increased fatigue. You should monitor your sitting position as your body changes throughout the pregnancy.

Work with your line manager or local DSE assessor to make adjustments to your workstation to help you work comfortably and safely. You should also:

  • Run through this DSE checklist regularly and whenever you sit at a new workstation.
  • Take frequent breaks lasting for a couple of minutes that will allow you to move, carry out a different task or change position.
  • Complete the DSE e-learning module if you haven’t done so in the last 12 months.
  • Speak to your line manager or local DSE assessor if you have any concerns.

Read our guidance for new and expectant mothers at work.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and repetitive work

As our workforce is living and working longer, age-related changes mean we become more susceptible to some hazards.

Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, which increases the risk of fractures and developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSD’s) in the workplace.

EU-OSHA reported that women are more likely than men to experience neck, shoulder and arm problems when carrying out repetitive work or manual handling activities.

Simple ergonomic interventions can help reduce the risk of developing MSD’s for all workers:

  • Consider using ergonomic equipment and arranging workspaces to avoid repetitive work, awkward postures and excessive force.
  • Plan your work so you can take breaks and rotate the tasks to avoid sustained, repetitive work.
  • When lifting or carrying heavy items, use mechanical lifting aids, reduce loads, avoid carrying across long distances, and consider weight and ergonomic factors when purchasing portable equipment.
  • Use HSE’s MAC tool for planning manual handling activities and ART tool for planning repetitive tasks.

For more information about maintaining a safe and healthy work environment, visit the Safety and Health Services website or contact our team.

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