One-Eyed Science: Occupational Health and Women Workers

Article excerpt

Messing, Karen. One-eyed science: Occupational health and women workers. Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press, 1998. xx + 244 pp. Index. ISBN 1-56639-598-4.

For those of us who are worker-friendly occupational health specialists, it was a clear sign of trouble when, at the 1996 International Congress on Occupational Health in Stockholm, the medical director of a large American corporation could insult doctors who testify in hearings that workers' back pain is due to their jobs, calling those doctors "prostitutes" and "hired guns", without being interrupted or opposed. I'm not sure which is worse - the fact that he said it, or that no one opposed him. Such is the kind of provocative in sight provided by Karen Messing in this important work, a must-read for anyone in the occupational health field.

Uncovered in her deeply analytical, aptly-titled account is the detriment to workers' health -- particularly to women workers' health -- caused by the North American systems of occupational health research and workers' compensation. Just how harmful the "system" is to women's health is unknown, since women's occupational health issues are virtually unstudied, unrecognized and uncompensated, according to the author. Messing's theme throughout is "why should women's occupational health be any different from men's?".

The book is written from a North American viewpoint, with a strong feminist orientation and examples drawn from research, workers' compensation systems, policy orientation and legislation in the United States and Canada. But since the book does not claim to present an international perspective, this is not a limitation.

In the North American occupational health system, women find themselves in a man's world, where their biology, their jobs, and their social situation are alien to those who judge them. The agents they are exposed to and conditions they suffer cannot be confirmed as dangerous - or safe - since they have not been studied adequately. Messing challenges common beliefs about the gendered division of labour, using case-studies to unfold alternative theories. She goes beyond the orthodoxy of studies of strength testing, explaining how gender differences get exaggerated when techniques are imposed on workers. She outlines how the sexual division of labour has become institutionalized through widespread use of strength tests, and how most researchers ignore their limitations. More insidious, she explains how the results of these studies and tests are used to support discrimination against women. Women are typically excluded from the design stage of workspaces and equipment. Women in various occupations have fewer rest breaks than men. Certain physical requirements, such as standing for a long time, are not subject to pre-employment testing. Yet sales clerks, bank tellers, poultry processors, cannery workers and grocery cashiers, all usually women, must be able to stand for long hours.

Asking tough questions, Messing analyses whether the skewed composition of the population of scientists (typically white middle-class men) influences the culture of scientific institutions and, eventually, the health of workers. She shows how this male culture is far from familiar with the experience and environment of workers, how financial and cultural barriers limit access to the ranks of scientists, and how the demands of scientific research restrict social contacts and community involvement. Not allowing men to bear all the blame, she says the lack of interest in the effects of working conditions on women is also found among those with a feminist perspective, including some feminist doctors and scientists. Indeed, much of the occupational health research conducted today cannot even indirectly contribute to improving workers' health. It is clear from reading scientific journals that most researchers do not include the link between research and action in occupational health.

A major problem in occupational health is how research grants are funded. …