Despite making up more than 40% of the global workforce, the average work environment is still designed for men, which puts women at greater risk of injury on the job.
In fact, compared to men, women are more likely to develop at least one musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) – a painful, life-altering injury such as tendonitis, back strains and sprains, and carpal tunnel syndrome – while performing job-related duties.
Q: Are companies aware of the higher injury rates for women?
A: The most common workplace injury – musculoskeletal disorders or MSDs – has generally been under-recognized and under-addressed. Part of this is because MSDs are a complicated issue, as is their prevention. How an organization diagnoses, and subsequently prevents, a rotator cuff tear is going to be much different than how they may address carpal tunnel syndrome.
What’s more, research shows men and women are not necessarily at risk for the same type of MSDs.
For instance, because women are more frequently exposed to prolonged static postures and repetitive hand and arm movements, instances of MSDs related to the hip, wrist and hand are more pronounced across this demographic. By contrast, men are more often exposed to injuries involving the lower back and knee, which may stem from risk factors like vibrations, quick movements and heavy lifting.
That said, women are still susceptible to all MSDs, including those involving the neck, lower back and knee. They are more likely to work in a job that involves lifting or moving people (15% vs. 5%), and women who perform the same tasks as men may be required to engage their muscles near maximum capacity. In addition, women report instances of MSD-related neck and shoulder pain twice as often as men. This can be a result of certain job tasks requiring women to engage their muscles more than men, or PPE not fitting properly since it was designed for a man. This goes to show that recognizing and addressing safety risks in the workplace is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Continuing with the MSD example, the National Safety Council launched the MSD Solutions Lab two years ago to not only sound the alarm on this widespread issue but to conduct research, identify new technology, innovate solutions and scale these results so all workplaces and all workers can benefit. At NSC, we’re also developing resources so organizations can implement a tailored MSD solution strategy for their individual workplace.
Q: What type of metrics are available about this?
A: More research to understand the influence of work environments on MSD risk and job accommodations that address the complex issues of sex and gender is still needed. It’s also worth noting that due to limited data and a hesitancy to disclose sexual orientation or transgender identities, little is currently known about MSD risk among LGBTQ+ workers, but discrimination and psychosocial risk factors in the workplace are likely related to increased risk of MSDs.
In fact, women are more frequently exposed to psychosocial risk factors, which contribute to emotional turmoil, depression and anxiety. These in turn have been associated with a high probability of developing an MSD.
Safety and health are all about continuous improvement, and as America’s leading nonprofit safety advocate, NSC believes it is critically important that these issues continue to be more widely addressed.
For instance, in June 2021, NIOSH, recognized a disparity in the availability and accessibility of PPE among underserved U.S. workers – specifically workers who were atypical in size, members of a gender, racial, or ethnic minority group, or conducted non-traditional work activities – issued a call-to-action for researchers, experts and organizations familiar with the topic, to share their insights on how to close this practice gap.
In addition, we at NSC are proud to be at the forefront of conducting and disseminating research to help all organizations advance healthier, more equitable workplaces. This year, NSC will publish another white paper, focused on the relationship between diversity, equity and inclusion, and MSD prevention.
Q: What strategies would you recommend to set up a system that addresses the disparity in injuries?
A: Workplace safety isn’t just a “nice to have;” it’s a right that should be enjoyed by all. Research shows though that women are not only less likely to speak out about work-related health risks, but they’re less likely to be heard when they do; it’s crucial for employers to be attuned to both individual and systematic risk factors.
One of the easiest ways they can do this is by fostering a safe culture of reporting that protects against retaliation for reporting MSDs, and trains managers to better detect early warning signs of pain to convey concern. When workers feel empowered to speak up about their injuries, organizations can gain a better understanding of which groups may already be dealing with MSDs and may need additional support.
Another way employers can create more equitable workplaces is by asking employees to self-identify. Often, organizational injury metrics are completed by a manager or HR representative on behalf of the injured employee. This practice, coupled with limited categories on employee short forms, may not tell employers all they need to know about the makeup of their workforce. Giving workers the opportunity to self-identify and describe an injury from their perspective ensures organizations can have ergonomic solutions that work for everyone.
Q: What cultural changes need to take place?
A: A workplace that is not only physically safe for all employees but psychologically safe as well, is key to a holistic approach to a worker’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. In October 2020, U. S. Steel president and CEO David Burritt and I penned a blog about psychological safety on the manufacturing industry.
Q: What action steps can companies take?
A: While no industry is immune, it’s no secret that retail, manufacturing, and healthcare industries, as well as critical workforce sectors, such as transportation and logistics, experience the largest rates of MSD injuries.
At NSC, our role is to help guide every employer to achieve a safer workplace – no matter if they’re a multi-national corporation or a family-owned business – which is why we proudly launched the MSD Pledge, one of the MSD Solutions Lab’s tentpole initiatives, last June. The MSD Pledge is a first-of-its-kind commitment from employers to improve workplace safety, reduce MSD risks and enhance the wellbeing of workers around the world. To date, more than 150 organizations, including dozens in the manufacturing sector, representing over 2.6 million workers have signed the pledge.
But one aspect of the pledge that’s especially exciting is the MSD Solutions Index, a benchmarking tool that assesses each pledge member’s MSD prevention efforts to provide individualized feedback on areas of success and improvement. Individual index responses will remain confidential and information from this first-ever survey will be aggregated to help the MSD Solutions Lab identify trends and glean broader insights into high-risk industries. At this point in time, insights from index responses will be shared in the next few months.