Workers Health & Safety Centre

Gender-bias in OHS research renewed subject of investigation

A new study confirms a gender-gap persists in both the number and depth of research studies which focus on women’s exposure to occupational carcinogens.

The implications of this are significant. Implicit bias can impact what research gets funded and how public policy is framed. Epidemiological studies are also essential in establishing links between workplace exposures and disease and are also critical in supporting both primary prevention and helping to establish workers’ compensation claims.

Gender-bias in lung cancer studies—key findings

The study, a systematic review of gender-bias in lung cancer studies (2003‐2014), examined 243 journal articles and found:
  • Studies had minimal inclusion of women workers—55.5% focused on men, 41.5% were mixed, and 2.9% focused on women.
  • Mixed sex studies had a disproportionate ratio of men to women (half of the studies had a ratio of men to women of 3.5 to 1 and in one-quarter of studies the ratio was more than 12.4 to 1).
  • Cohort studies, which examine causality, including multiple exposures over time, were less likely to include women workers.

The research may reflect that men and women are employed in different sectors with studies focused on jobs thought to have more carcinogenic exposures and which are often male dominated. Authors of this latest study however say workers, of either sex, holding the same job may not be performing the same tasks nor have similar exposures. They also find women experience greater job insecurity and are more likely to be exposed to multiple agents, rather than a single agent, throughout their working lives.

The authors’ conclude women’s work has often been marginalized, “Consequently, investigators have often perceived women’s work as safe, especially in comparison to that of men, who furthermore have been viewed as representative of the entire working population. That perception is often leading to lesser investigation into women’s occupations or tasks.”

Other supporting research

This latest study builds on others which come to similar conclusions. A 2015 study reviewed the epidemiological literature from 1991 to 2009 and found although the number of studies focused on women had increased over that time, they were still less likely to include exposure estimates or to evaluate dose-response relationships.

Researchers in Quebec have completed sex-specific analysis on occupational exposure to chemical and physical contaminants. They found a difference in exposures with men having greater exposure to vehicle exhaust, petroleum fractions, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, construction material dusts and abrasive dust. Jobs held by women included more exposures to fabric and textile fibre dust and to aliphatic aldehydes.

For men and women reporting the same task within an occupation though, reported exposures were similar. All of these findings support the need for better research tools which measure individual workplace exposures and which include detailed information on tasks performed to more accurately reflect real workplace exposures.

Need to study all workplace exposures

Victoria Arrandale, a scientist with the Occupational Cancer Research Centre, says while women’s work is underrepresented in the research, this may reflect historical work patterns where high hazard work was carried out in large, male-dominated, unionized facilities, such as manufacturing and resource industries. In those workplaces, workers were more likely to have a collective voice for raising health and safety concerns. This also makes it easier for researchers to reach those workers and gather exposure data to study the burden of disease.

“Today we see large numbers of workers, many of them women, potentially exposed to hazardous substances in a variety of workplaces, for example the service sector. A perception that this work is safe may exist,” says Arrandale, “but this may not be the case and shouldn’t suggest these workplace exposures aren’t worthy of study.”

Fortunately, progress is being made. For several decades now, an interdisciplinary group of researchers based out of the University of Quebec at Montreal has partnered with three trade union confederations to promote research on women’s occupational health and safety through their organization, L'invisible qui fait mal (invisible that hurts).

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research also now funds Research Chairs in Gender, Work and Health.
The Workers Health & Safety Centre assists all workplace parties with training programs and information services aimed at raising awareness about hazardous exposures, including those which can contribute to the burden of cancer, and targeting prevention at the workplace level.

To learn more: 
Call:   1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak with a training services representative