At the Safety & Health Expo in May this year, delegates heard from Alison Margary, British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) Past President, on why she feels women’s workplace health is neglected. In this article, we summarise key points from her talk.
According to Alison, occupational hygiene is often thought about simply as ‘cleanliness’. However, she said that this discipline is designed to protect people against serious illness and risk of death, by controlling biological, physical, and chemical exposure in the workplace—especially low levels of exposure that can lead to serious outcomes over time. “It is health sitting next to safety and is too often neglected as it is less visible, and disproportionately impacts women”, she told the audience.
She continued: “We must get serious about preventing women from becoming ill in the workplace with the same vigour that we have been serious about preventing accidents in the workplace, which is more likely to focus on men.”
Alison Margary speaking at Safety & Health Expo in May
Alison is a chartered occupational hygienist and has served as President of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS). Throughout her career, she has worked at local and corporate levels nationally and internationally, with the aim of setting, influencing, and implementing occupational hygiene standards and guidance as part of multi-disciplinary teams.
She believes in promoting prevention over cure in the ‘battle’ to manage workplace health risks, and this, she said, drives her dedication to helping organisations understand the ‘critical need’ to recognise individual differences in the workplace health strategies.
She focused on the topic of exposure and individual risks as a critical need, saying that the lines have blurred between domestic work and homeworking, and where women continue to be overrepresented in roles that increase exposure to risks.
As Alison noted, when considering women who are working in paid employment roles around cleaning, healthcare and social care, they may be looking at double the number of hours when adding in those roles in their personal lives: “This has a direct effect on women’s health on those in domestic service, childcare and cleaning sectors; the paid work they are doing is crossing over into unpaid,” she commented.
“Companies must protect the health of their workers”
Further, she added that the protection of workers who are employed through agencies can often be deprioritised, as agencies may consider the responsibility to fall with the firms hiring their workers, while the companies outsourcing these roles may expect the agency to have assessed issues around health protection.
“This is incorrect”, she said, adding that companies must protect the health of their workers, even if supplied under contract, explaining: “All businesses can, and should, and legally must, protect workers. But it’s all too often neglected.”
She also called out the Government for its approach to the issues, commenting that the overall cost of health and social care is increasing, even as pressure demands and health impacts on those providing it is also rising.
However, Alison added that ‘the irony is’ those providing this care are either in public sector jobs or working through private sector providers delivering services that are publicly funded.
She argued that by failing to invest in health protection for women, there is a greater risk of long-term illness whereby they become a cost and demand to the system that they supported. “This inequality is a major social failure,” Alison stated.
Concluding her address at Safety & Health Expo, she uncovered how unconscious bias could also impact investment, saying that the majority of health and safety advisors are men, and men are much more likely to die from an accident at work than women.
Alison questioned if the focus on safety over health could be related to the higher profile and immediacy of accidents compared to longer-term illness. In addition, she asked why sexual violence in the workplace is not dealt with under statute, while other workplace violence is; and what message this conveys to women in the workforce.
“Protecting health at work means addressing exposures that are often hidden, insidious or hard to understand”, Alison said: “The causes of women’s ill health in the workplace are not complex,” she concluded. “But the lack of effort by employers to focus on the issues and address or prevent them is a concern.”
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