Using the Right "Tools" to Protect Women Workers: OSHA Doesn't Differentiate between the Genders, but There Are Occupational Health Issues That Particularly Impact Women

Article excerpt

"To ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women." This was the mission of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 when it was enacted by Congress, and is still its mission today.

To accomplish its goal, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses a variety of tools, among them enforcement of standards and regulations, training in safety and health topics, distribution of training grants externally, special emphasis programs, hazard bulletins, and other outreach and guidance products and activities. Additionally, states that operate their own occupational safety and health programs can develop their own areas of special emphasis to meet the requirement that their programs be at least as protective as the federal program.

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When it comes to protecting workers, the agency typically doesn't differentiate between the genders. Its regulations apply to all workplaces (and all workers) covered in the scope of the standard. The agency took this approach with its lead standard (29 CFR 1910.1025) and 1, 3 Butadiene (29 CFR 1910.1051), for which adverse reproductive outcomes were a concern. Ensuring protection for subpopulations that may be more sensitive than the working population as a whole is ensured not by implementation of exclusionary policies, but by making the work-place safe for all workers. This approach was upheld in the courts (Supreme Court, International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW v. Johnson Controls Inc., 111 S. Ct. 1196, 55 EPD 40,605 (1991)).

Health Care Industry Hazards

There are, however, occupational health issues that have particular applications to women's health because a large portion of the work force to which they apply is comprised of women.

The health care industry, where 92 percent of the 4.3 million nurses and nursing aides in the United States are female, is the best example of this. Occupational hazards encountered by employees in the health care industry include ergonomic hazards, such as patient handling and lifting; potential chemical and drug exposures such as glutaraldehyde, inhaled anesthetic agents (e.g., nitrous oxide), cytotoxic drugs (e.g., antineoplastic agents); and biological hazards including bloodborne pathogens, among others.

In addition to OSHA's bloodborne pathogen and hazard communication standards, a number of guidance tools either recently completed or in development by the agency address hazards found in health care. In March of this year, OSHA published its "Guidelines for Nursing Homes: Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders." The guidelines focus on practical recommendations for employers to reduce the number and severity of workplace injuries by using methods found to be successful in the nursing home environment.

The guidelines are the result of extensive collaboration with stakeholders. …