Published: 24/02/2021

Equality requires a gender approach to occupational health and safety

As trade unions representing some of the workers most exposed to pesticides we should welcome the new report on women and chemicals from IPEN/SACIM.

But how can we use it in our regular work to improve occupational safety and health?

The report’s recommendations can be useful to unions in their campaigns:

  • to educate and empower women to fight high exposure levels
  • to strengthen capacity around risk assessments and risk management
  • to bolster efforts to negotiate the phasing out of Highly Hazardous Pesticides
  • to promote agroecology
  • to improve communication around the use of chemicals while pushing for effective inclusion of women in all decision-making bodies
  • to negotiate for appropriate PPE

The report draws attention to the harmful heath impact on women of chemicals exposure.  For example, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), widely present in products used by women including cosmetics, cleaning products, household pesticides and personal care products, impact both sexes but the exposure to the same chemicals may cause different effects in men and women. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals may for example have adverse effects on the female hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis which can lead to reproductive disorders such as early puberty, infertility, abnormal cyclicity, premature ovarian failure/menopause, endometriosis, fibroids, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. There is also a strong connection between pesticides and breast cancer rates in women with almost 100 pesticides identified as potentially contributing to increased risk of breast cancer.

The IPEN/SACIM report echoes the IUF Manual “Making women visible in occupational health and safety” in the need to adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender responsive approach to health and safety at work as central to establishing equal rights to protection, and safer and healthier workplaces for all.

In addition to raising awareness amongst their members by surveying and mapping workers’ exposures, an important next step would be for unions to initiate and campaign for further academic studies to remedy the lack of information available about women, the workplace and chemicals.

Such studies would include an analysis of women’s exposure to chemicals as well as chemicals’ effects on women’s specific physiology including long-term effects on the reproductive system. Governments have a crucial role to play in ensuring a gender-responsive approach to occupational health and safety, supporting and promoting such research, implementing its findings and undertaking targeted health and safety enforcement activity.

While welcoming the IPEN/SACIM  focus  on agriculture and horticulture, studies are also needed on chemical-related hazards in the hotel and restaurant sector.

A gender approach to occupational safety and health is critical and urgent in the fight for equality. Let’s get to work.


A gender approach to occupational safety and health is critical and urgent in the fight for equality.