Unions: Men and women more equal, but not on workplace health, safety


This article is part of our special report Quo Vadis Health and Safety at Work?.

SPECIAL REPORT / Even though politicians and trade unions have tried for many years to tackle gender inequality in the EU labour market, gaps persist. But they have become smaller during the financial crisis, experts say.

The EU has put gender equality at the heart of its policies over the past 30 years, but men and women continue to have different occupations, take on jobs in opposing work places and sectors and continue to be employed on diverging contracts and receive different rewards for the work they do, even after adjustments for skills and education are made.

Speaking at the conference 'Jobs take their toll: The impact of ageing, gender and occupational hazards on workers' in Brussels on Tuesday (10 December), Agnieszka Piasna of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) pushed for the closing of some gender gaps in key labour market indicators, like pay levels and employment rates.

However, such a development is not solely positive, and it comes with a downside, Piasna stressed.

"This closing of gaps between genders actually drives from the worsening of working conditions for men in the current crisis and not at all from improvement of the situation for women," she said.

Occupational diseases

Elke Schneider of the Prevention and Research unit at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) emphasised that the awareness of gender issues is still low at both the policy level and at the level of labour expectations.

For example, the research on occupational diseases is still focused on male-dominated sectors, but it should also explore industries where diseases strike female workers.

Emblematic is the case of health and safety for hairdressers, who are in constant contact with all sorts of soaps, shampoos and dyes, and who also suffer from back injuries and muscular problems.

"Risk assessment on exposure to dangerous substances needs to be targeting women. There are work places where women are highly exposed with a combined exposure," Schneider said.

"The measurements are still much focused on male work places. So if you don't look for the right thing, you won't have the information and then you'll make the assumption or conclusion that women are not exposed to dangerous substances," she continued.

Schneider added that as women move more into male-dominated jobs, new policies would have to ensure that the personal equipment are also designed for women.

Unhappiness and solutions

Gérard Valenduc, associate professor at the universities Louvain-la-Neuve and Namur, said that women tended to be more unhappy than men with a lack of autonomy at work, something which affects a growing number of female workers as they age.

Many women feel that they lack career prospects. Especially around the ages 30-39, women in all occupations say that they have fewer opportunities to evolve in their careers, except for those in the education sector.

Piasna added hat the way to bridge the gender gaps will be to continue monitoring the labour market conditions with the focus on gender and the gender segregation in the different sectors.

"There are positive job quality and well-being effects expected from limiting gender segregation, so jobs should be open for men in female-dominated occupations and for women in male-dominated occupations. There should also be supervisory positions for women who are very beneficial in terms of ensuring job quality for both men and women, especially for men," she said.

In 2011, a European Parliament report on the Occupational Safety and Health at Work (OSH) led by MEP Karima Delli stressed that further harmonisation at EU level had to be developed, especially in tackling the development of new psycho-social risks.

Even though EU legislation on OSH existed in the form of a 1989 framework directive and other directives on specific risks or sectors, like REACH, psycho-social risks were not sufficiently dealt with, highlighted the Parliament’s report.

The Commission is currently undertaking in-depth analysis in order to decide on the next steps concerning a future EU occupational health and safety policy framework.

This in-depth analysis includes an evaluation of the previous EU OSH Strategy 2007-2012,consultation of relevant stakeholders such as the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work and Senior Labour Inspectors' Committee, and obtaining feedback from all interested parties through the public consultation launched in the summer of 2013.

The precise timing of the strategy has not been decided but it could be in the Spring of 2014.

  • Spring 2014: Commission might come out with a strategy - or a policy framework -on health and safety

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