Monday, April 4, 2011

Women's health in the trades

The Edmonton journal is reporting an study underway in Alberta to examine the impact of metal and electrical trades on women's health.

This story has two interesting angles:

1. An admission by government that there is no reliable data about the impact of chemical hazards on the health of female or male welders. This sort of data gap is quite common and poses a fundamental threat to notions that occupational health and safety rules (including occupational exposure levels) provide any sort of meaningful protections to workers.

2. An admission by an employer that the women's health (particularly their reproductive health) is safeguarded by exclusion. That is to say, the employer does not investigate or remediate the hazard--they simply take women (generally pregnant women) out of the workplace. This is a fairly typical response which historically has disadvantaged women's careers.

This gendering of injury contributes to the social construction of some jobs as male and some as female. An implication of this is that we deem it acceptable to expose men to hazardous work (perhaps contributing to the higher rate of reported work-related injuries among men). A second implication is that women are exposed to less obvious hazards in their work (which may contribute to the lower rate of reported worker-related injuries among women).

Clear data about the health impact of metal and electrical work on women should prove useful. Hopefully the regulatory response is more nuanced than one of exclusion.

-- Bob Barnetson

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