Health and safety at work: Priorities and gender challenges

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ETUI Senior Researcher Aida Ponce talks to ETUC Confederal Secretary Esther Lynch about the priorities and gender challenges that employees face at their workplace.


I am here with Esther Lynch, Confederal Secretary at European Trade Union Confederation. Today we are going to speak about working conditions and occupational health and safety and her top priorities during the upcoming months and years. Thank you very much for being here with us. Would you please briefly describe your top priorities as a Confederal Secretary?

The top priorities for the ETUC for the coming years are to improve health and safety for all workers in Europe. We have a couple of themes within health and safety that we are working on this year. One of those is work-related cancer. Another is to improve the situation in relation to psychosocial risks and vascular skeletal disorders and also to try and empower health and safety reps in the workplace. We want to focus on both men and women in their workplaces.

You mentioned the gender issue in occupational health and safety. One would tend to think that where occupational health and safety and working conditions are concerned, men and women are protected equally. Isn’t that the case?

I think the biggest problem that women have in relation to health and safety is having their situation recognised as being different to men. Often, risk assessments don’t take into account the differences between either the work that women do or the impact of the work on women. For example, you often see that machines aren’t designed for women’s work, personal protective equipment doesn’t fit, but also in risk assessments it’s almost invisible the fact that women do a lot of work that has the same impact. So for example, care workers who often lift very heavy loads, women working with chemicals at the end of the process, are issues that are often not recognised. So you will see a good risk assessment on where the chemical is being made but not so much of a risk assessment on where the women, for example, in cleaning or in other industries are using the chemicals at the end of the process.

I wonder if you could, as ETUC Confederal Secretary, provide some ideas and what would you suggest unions do within the gender issue and in order to keep women’s health protected in a better way?

What we know for sure is that trade union health and safety committees make workplaces safer. So what’s absolutely critical is to include women within those health and safety committees and really to encourage a lot more women to come forward and to participate, to give them the skills so that they can do that. But also, we need a lot more research. So for example, work-related breast cancer. The biggest cancer-related cause of death for women in Europe is breast cancer. But we know very little about the work-related aspects of this. What we know is that risk factors include night work, shift work, but also some chemicals. And yet, very little information is available and most importantly we don’t know what advice we can give to women to protect themselves properly at work from work-related breast cancers. Other pieces that we are missing are information for pregnant workers in relation to endocrine disrupters, reprotoxic chemicals. So there is a lot of information that we need, a lot more research that we need. What we know for sure is that trade-union-led health and safety keeps workers safe. So it is important that women are encouraged to come forward and to be part of those committees.

Well, Esther, thank you very much for being here with us and for pointing out the different challenges. We hope to have you again at ETUI. For those who would like to know more about the topic, we have published the recent HesaMag on gender, work and health. It is available to read on the ETUI website.