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Women Workers and Chemicals – Part 1 in a three-part series.

WORKER SAFETY: NEW CONCERNS FOR WOMEN

DID YOU KNOW that female workers are at increased risk from certain chemical environmental contaminants? It turns out our current Occupational Health and Safety regulations may not be adequate to protect female workers from harmful occupational chemical exposure.

The National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH) is a research centre created in 1996, focused primarily on policy-oriented research relating to the impact of different environments on the health of women in Canada. The impact of hazardous chemicals on female worker safety has been an area of particular concern; as the NNEWH points out “women’s lives involve hormonal and metabolic changes that create opportunities for differential effects of similar environments on women as compared to men.”

Despite this difference, the toxicity of many chemicals used in the workplace have not been specifically studied with regards to women’s health, nor, in many cases, have the effects of long-term occupational chemical exposure or the potential compounding effects of exposure to multiple chemicals in multiple venues (e.g. workplace and home) been adequately studied. Identifying specific hazards to women’s health is the first step to implementing strategies for better protection against health risks. NNEWH’s projects focus on both the influence of chemical exposures on women’s health and the regulation and management of chemicals in Canada.

In terms of occupational health and safety, NNEWH studies also revealed that women, as workers, may enjoy less OHS protection. For example, they are over-represented in part-time, temporary and precarious jobs and have lower levels of unionizations, both of which may increase the likelihood of working in situations where even existing occupational health and safety regulations are not fully complied with. And indeed, researchers have observed workplaces where women’s exposure to harmful chemicals is compounded because “health and safety training is often incomplete, existing testing protocols are inadequate, and ventilation of workplaces is problematic or altogether absent.”

One big research effort has focused on women working with plastics, and specifically in Ontario’s automotive sector. The research clearly demonstrates that plastics workers are exposed to mammary carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals, putting women in particular at increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive diseases. We’ll be discussing these risks, employer obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and WHMIS 2015, and recommended best practices in Part 2 of this three-part series on Women Workers and Chemicals.

Employers are responsible for taking every reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of all employees. What can you do to protect your female workers?

• Ensure you are compliant with WHMIS 2015 (Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) and that all workers exposed to hazardous materials are fully trained in their safe use and handling.
• Identify any chemicals in your workplace that pose increased risk to women’s health.
• Use less hazardous substitutes for these chemicals if possible.
• Ensure proper ventilation and provide protective equipment such as respirators where appropriate.
• Encourage workers to take meal and coffee breaks away from the area of exposure.

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