Women’s Occupational Health and Safety

In the past the health and safety needs of men in the workplace have been prioritised over women. This is because risk prevention focused on visibly dangerous work – largely carried out by men – in industries like maritime, rail, construction, and mining, with an assumption that the kind of work that women do is safer. When women, such as some RMT women members, do work in areas that have traditionally been done by men, like train drivers and maintenance track workers, they often find that when they are given equipment to protect them at work, it is designed for men.

There is no excuse for this old-fashioned and dangerous approach from employers as there is lots more research available on women’s occupational health and safety and yet still these problems persist (the doyenne of such research is Karen Messing, and her book “One-Eyed Science”). There is a refusal to acknowledge the differences, both physically and biologically (in terms of their biological makeup). Additionally, in terms of their responsibilities, women’s paid work - combined with housework and caring responsibilities (the majority of which is done by women) - impacts on women’s work at the workplace and at home. This is something known as the double burden. Instead of considering these differences between men and women, employers instead adopt a ‘one size fits all approach’ - and women whose work requires wearing PPE often find they have equipment designed for men. 

Where the differences between men and women are considered when assessing risk and deciding suitable risk control solutions, there is a greater chance of ensuring that the health, safety and welfare of all workers is protected.

Several research surveys have shown that stress affects women more than men. Reasons for this are complex; women earn less, policy does not allow for family life responsibilities, and the jobs they do involve high job demand combined with low control over the job. For example, most RMT women members are employed in roles associated with assisting customers - such as on-board hosts, service advisors/assistants/service officers, stewardesses, cleaners, gateline assistants, revenue protection and conductor guards. Many of these roles involve work that is draining as it involves helping and advising passengers – additionally many of these roles are lower paid work. Research has shown that those in lower paid and more insecure are more likely to be injured or made ill, to be killed by work and to live shorter less healthy lives. Women are more exposed to repetitive and monotonous work and to stressful conditions, they are more likely to experience harassment at work than men and women are more likely than men to develop back strain, skin diseases, headaches and eyestrain. 

For some women, such as cleaners, their workplace health problems are also frequently compounded by getting more of the same at home - the "double burden/double jeopardy” of domestic work, which can mean a second shift of things like exposure to cleaning chemicals topping off those experienced all day at work.

RMT is seeking to increase our campaigning work around women’s health and safety - and to increase the number of women that are RMT safety reps. For example, we worked with the TUC on Women and the Union Safety Rep role (findings from focus groups, July – October 2022):


and we carried out a similar focus group of RMT safety reps on Workers Memorial Day 2022. We plan to use the learning from such activities to feed into our campaign to recruit more women safety reps. This campaign is led by the first ever woman chair of RMT’s Health and Safety Advisory Committee, Ann Joss.  Ann featured in an RMT article in July/August 2022 RMT News: https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-news/rmt-news-2022/


Useful Links:

Gender in occupational safety and health

A TUC guide for trade union activists (with gender checklist): 



Personal protective equipment and women

Guidance for workplace representatives on ensuring it is a safe fit:



Not just hot flushes: how menopause can destroy mental health:

TUC guide Supporting working women through the menopause, guidance for union representatives

Violence against women transport workers and the ITF global women’s advocate programme:

ITF Sanitation Rights Toolkit:

ITF - Sanitation rights are human rights – activist toolkit:


Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - New and expectant mothers

Hazards on Women’s Health and Safety

European Agency for Safety and Health at work, women and safety and health at work

There is also advice found about women’s occupational health and safety in RMT Women’s Charter, the charter can be found here:  

The Global Safety Podcast episode 4: Violence & Harassment in the Workplace: https://smarturl.it/globalsafetypodcast 

Hazards Campaign research on women being at greater risk of breast cancer if they work prolonged night shifts: