COVID-19 has put health and safety at the heart of fair work, but women’s needs remain under-researched, under-reported and under-compensated

COVID-19 has brought new emphasis to the danger of occupational exposure to disease and injury, leading to increasing focus on health and safety concerns within the context of fair work. These concerns are particularly important for women who account for the majority of key workers, meaning they have greater exposure to the virus in the workplace.

Figures from the HSE covering the period of April to September 2020 found that 75% of employer COVID-19 disease reports made in Scotland related to a female employee. Evidence also shows that women aged 50-60 are at greatest risk of long-COVID and women were twice as likely as men to suffer from COVID symptoms that lasted longer than a month. Many women, therefore, will be struggling to return to work due to the effects of Long-COVID.

Women account for 98% of key workers earning “poverty wages”. Many women with greater exposure to the virus and increased likelihood of long-COVID are therefore less likely to have savings to fall back on. It is therefore pivotal that these women are able to access industrial injury benefit to prevent them, and their families, falling into further and deeper poverty.

However, the current system of employment injuries assistance (EIA) does not deliver for women in the labour market. Women account for only 16% of those claiming Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) and only 13.5% of all new claims to the benefit in the ten years up to December 2019 were made by women.

Mark Griffin MSP’s proposed Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill is therefore a critical, and timely, intervention. The Bill aims to establish an advisory council on workplace injuries and diseases to scrutinise social security legislation in the realm of EIA and commission research into new employment hazards and entitlements. The consultation document establishes that a key priority for change should be research into women’s experiences of industrial injury and the development of new mechanisms and definitions which improve women’s access to industrial injury benefit.

The modernisation of the EIA system and increased focus on women’s health and safety is long-overdue. Women’s experience of injury and disease are routinely ignored in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) design. A recent TUC survey found that 57% of women found that their PPE sometimes or significantly hampered their work and only 29% of women said that the PPE they use is specifically designed for women, meaning that it is not fit for purpose. This is a significant health and safety issue, as the wrong PPE can increase risk from injury or disease. For instance, ill-fitting gloves can lead to problems gripping, while the wrong shoes or overalls can increase the chances of tripping. Despite this heightened risk of injury and disease, the EIA does not respond to women’s needs.

Issues around a lack of appropriate PPE have been further highlighted during the pandemic. The Royal College of Nursing have raised particular concerns around access to PPE for staff working outside of a hospital environment, and there have been widely reported concerns around access to PPE for social care staff, 85% of whom are women. Inappropriate PPE can leave woman further exposed to COVID-19, posing a severe risk to the safety of women workers and their families.

A lack of research into women’s health and safety means that many female-dominated jobs and sectors, and certain conditions predominantly experienced by women, continue to be absent from the list-based system which determines compensation eligibility under the current scheme. The prescribed list is focused on the injuries and illnesses most associated with male-dominated jobs and sectors, such as construction, and neglects those risks associated with low-paid, female-dominated sectors such as cleaning and care. Examples of diseases and injuries commonly experienced by women which are not considered by the current scheme include MSDs through lifting, breast cancer caused by shift work, and asbestos related ovarian cancer.

Women still typically have the dual burden of household work and caring responsibilities which exposes women to the similar hazards at home they experience at work, increasing the likelihood of injury. However, the mechanisms for accounting for this unpaid work are insufficient in the current scheme which ultimately does not recognise the realities of women’s lives. The factors which complicate the process of establishing eligibility, including women’s propensity to work multiple jobs and to have career breaks in order to care for children, create a further barrier to women’s access to support.

Overall, it is clear why the TUC have concluded that less attention has been given to the health and safety needs of women. Research and developments in health and safety regulation, policy and risk management are primarily based on work traditionally done by men. By contrast, women’s occupational injuries and illnesses have been largely ignored, under-diagnosed, under-reported and under-compensated.

The modernisation of EIA and improvements to the system are long overdue, and reform is now a matter of urgency due to the workplace implications of COVID-19. Female workers face significant challenges in receiving support through the current system which is ultimately unfit for purpose. This adds to the undervaluation of “women’s work”, with a lack of recognition afforded to the risks and skills associated with women’s work. The current approach to IIDB takes the male worker as standard, leading to a system which has neglected women’s health and safety requirements and erected barriers to compensation.

You can read our full submission to the consultation on the Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill here.

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