Women's work can lead to pain in workplaces designed for men


February 09, 1993|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Contributing Writer

Backache? Bleary eyes? Sore shoulders and wrists? Chances are your workplace doesn't accommodate your physical characteristics, since a woman's dimensions are different from a man's. While that's obvious, it is rarely taken into account when planning work environments.

Ergonomics is the science of fitting work tasks to the people who do them. Women are a major portion of the work force, and designing space for them is a new area of study. Ergonomists know that when the work space doesn't fit the individual, the health consequences can range from fatigue to more severe diseases and injuries related to continuous overuse of muscles and joints. Office workers, flight attendants and garment workers have documented health consequences from their jobs. However, every occupation should accommodate the women who work in them.

Q: What are signs of problems?

A: Take a look at the space where you work. Are the tools you use in easy reach? Is your chair too high or too low? If you work at a keyboard, do your hands rest in a natural position on the keyboard? Are the tools you use too heavy or awkward to handle? These are areas where your work environment may not fit your working capacities.

Ergonomists evaluate stresses that occur at work and the ability of people to cope with these stresses. Researchers, like Dr. Joanna Sznajder at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, strive to learn about people's capabilities, limitations and motivations which influence work performance.

Q: What happens when the environment does not fit the person?

A: There are specific diseases which can arise when the work space design is not suited to the worker, including "cumulative trauma disorders" also known as "repetitive stress injuries." A well-known example is carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition resulting from damage to tendons in the wrist. This problem is common to cashiers, word processors or anyone who uses repeated twisting motions of the wrist.

Lifting heavy objects, stretching beyond an acceptable reach or sitting in an awkward position result in fatigue as well as back and other injuries. Women are entering into professional and industrial jobs they've never held before and are determined to succeed. But when the work environment is not suited to women, sooner or later health problems are sure to arise.

Q: What about pregnant women?

A: Everyday tasks can become a challenge for pregnant women, especially during the third trimester. These women commonly complain of back pain, fatigue, restricted reach and loss of balance. Solutions, like raising the height of the work surface and finding chairs that suit a pregnant woman's changed physique, are a beginning. But this is a key area for greater exploration.

Q: What should be done to protect people?

A: Preliminary studies note that the amount of work missed due to job-related illness is many times higher than gets reported. Improved training, adaptable work environments and focused research are all required.

We might learn from football and other pro sports where the innovative use of video, specialized training and research are helping players move faster and play safer. Like pro sports, all occupations have an investment in efficiency and safety.

Q: What can I do?

A: You can examine ways to adjust your work environment -- raise your chair to improve posture; adjust your keyboard so that your hands rest naturally when typing. Taking regular breaks from repetitive or sedentary jobs can ease the trauma to joints and muscles. These adjustments will improve health, and they will also improve your performance at work.

Talking about the issues is a key step to promoting research and policies which will serve women's health. For more information, call the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at (800) 356-4674 to request material on ergonomics and women at work.

Dr. Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

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