From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

NIOSH Expands Focus on Women and MSDs

The U.S.A. based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has an expanding research program to address the occupational safety and health needs of working women. NIOSH has identified elements of working that are of particular concern to women.

According to NIOSH:

  • Women currently comprise 46 percent of the 137 million workers in the United States, with their share of the labor force projected to reach 48 percent by 2008.
  • In 1999, 75 percent (46 million) of employed women worked full-time, while 25 percent (16 million) worked part-time.
  • In 1999, 3.7 million women held multiple jobs.
  • Sixty percent of women age 16 and over were either employed or looking for work in 1999.
  • Of employed women, 40 percent held technical, sales, and administrative support positions; 32 percent worked in managerial and professional specialties; and 17 percent worked in service occupations in 1999.

The incidence of work related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among women is one topic which will receive more research. Other factors and areas known to contribute to MSDs such as job stress, or performing patient handling in health care facilities will also be studied.

According to NIOSH, sprains and strains, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), tendonitis, and other MSDs account for more than half (52 percent) of the injuries and illnesses suffered by female workers, as compared to 45 percent for male workers.

Further research is needed to determine the factors that place women at greater risk for MSDs. Research will examine if physical differences between men and women, or differences in the jobs they hold, contribute to this increased risk for women. NIOSH is conducting research on musculoskeletal disorders among women in the telecommunication, health care, service, and data entry industries.

In one study relating to MSDs, NIOSH worked with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to examine interventions for reducing discomfort among IRS data entry workers, the majority of whom are female. NIOSH found that periodic rest breaks throughout the work shift reduced musculoskeletal discomfort, while allowing workers to maintain job performance.

Stress at work is another issue of concern. According to NIOSH, stress at work is a growing problem for all workers, including women. In one survey, 60 percent of employed women cited stress as their number one problem at work. Furthermore, levels of stress-related illness are nearly twice as high for women as for men.

Many job conditions contribute to stress among women, according to NIOSH. Such job conditions include heavy workload demands; little control over work; role ambiguity and conflict; job insecurity; poor relationships with coworkers and supervisors; and work that is narrow, repetitive, and monotonous.

Some of these factors such as monotonous work, and input into work design can be studied under the umbrella of macro-ergonomics. Techniques such as job enlargement and enrichment look at how to improve work that is monotonous or leaves little room for worker input.

One workplace aspect that was found to be inadequate for many female workers is the availability or properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE). NIOSH found that much of the PPE on the market today is not designed to fit female workers. PPE manufacturers need to consider female anthropometry and design equipment accordingly.

Other areas NIOSH plans to research with regards to women in the workplace include reproductive hazards, homicide, non-fatal assault, non-traditional employment, and cancers.