MMH Women Injured on the Job More than Men, and it’s Not about Muscle Power

posted on: Tuesday July 30, 2013

Knowing that, generally speaking, women are not as physically strong as men, one would guess that women in physical jobs are injured more often than men. While the statistics show this to be true, it is not necessarily a question of strength. Research shows that there are several other contributing factors to the trend that women report more musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) than men.


The Oxford Journal of Occupational Medicine published a study on women’s versus men’s injury rates in the healthcare industry. The study found that women were significantly more likely to incur injury and MSDs in this field. Specifically, female workers 30-49 years old were at higher risk than their male counterparts. However, there was an even higher risk of injury in women with less than ten years of experience, and temporary workers had the highest risk of injury.

When analyzing why this trend exists, researchers found something interesting. When studying hospital employees with the same job title, men were doing more physical work whereas women were doing more repetitive work. Repetitive work exposes the laborer to cumulative trauma – something that is reported much more frequently than other injuries. Repetitive stress injuries include the likes of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and thoracic outlet syndrome. These injuries can be chronic and very costly to treat – with a likelihood of preventing the sufferer from returning to the same kind of work. Women make up 80% of the healthcare workforce; injuries like these can have a devastating effect on staffing and workers’ compensation.

The Oxford article, “Are female healthcare workers at higher risk of occupational injury?” also stated, “…that differences in injury outcome by gender exist due to various physical, environmental and social factors.” This was found to be true when injury rates between the genders were analyzed in other manual labor fields.

Manual Material Handling and Physical Labor

The American Journal of Epidemiology published “Sex Differences in Work-related Injury Rates among Electric Utility Workers.” This article, written by Michael A. Kelsh and Jack D. Sahl, covered more than just electric utility workers. In most cases, women here were also found to have a higher injury rate than men. The authors hypothesized that this was not only due to differences in physical capabilities, but also workplace designs, additional stress and demands at home, and that women may be more likely to report injuries than men.

Looking at physical differences, women were far more likely to incur injuries to their extremities, especially lower extremities, than men. This would seem easy to attribute to the difference in strength between the genders. However, as the authors pointed out, if this were completely true, the incidence of back injury would also be higher for woman than men. What they found was that back injuries were almost equally likely to happen to women as they were to men. So strength can’t be the whole story.

Where women did not show higher incident rates of injuries form injury-producing events were overexertion and injury by equipment. Furthermore, when it came to the tasks most typically dominated by females (clerical, etc.) men were more at risk of injury than women. With these factors in mind, researchers looked at workplace design. Manual handling stations were designed for men by men, thereby causing women to have to overextend, submit to awkward postures, and work harder to maintain proper body mechanics. When any of these factors are paired with repetitive movements, there is a recipe for disaster. Workplace design and accommodations created to fit men was one of the biggest reasons for the gender difference in injury susceptibility.

Other factors in the manual material handling study included a range of findings. Women seem to experience more stress at work. Stress is a great contributor to injury likelihood. Training was a possible reason for the difference – men are more likely to grow up learning similar equipment, machines, and tasks, and therefore have an ingrained understanding of some safety issues. Whether women experience more fatigue and get less recovery time because of their home lives was no provable, but still considered a valid question.

A difference in strength accounts for injuries like stress fractures, but it seems the reason women are more frequently injured in physical jobs goes well beyond muscle ability.  So how can these job fields best accommodate their female workforce?

The best solutions have to do with ergonomics and paying attention to job tasks. Eliminate repetitive motions, especially those accompanied by reaching, bending, pushing, pulling, and awkward postures. Changing a workstation to accommodate all body types will not just help women. It will help all future employees who are diverse in height, weight, flexibility, and strength. Use automation or machines to handle strenuous activities. Power tuggers, for example, are used to transport materials in a number of manual material handling applications. Whether your industry is mostly populated by women or just starting to see a growing female presence, it is important to recognize how a few minor changes will impact their health and safety.

For information on how power tuggers make a difference in safety and productivity, search this site, email or call 952-767-1720.