Repetitive motion, shift work are potential hazards


November 23, 1993|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Contributing Writer

During the first half of this century, some young women chose a job that they thought was easy, safe and more socially acceptable than other work available at the time. They painted luminescent dials on watches.

Since they were paid by the piece, they tried to speed up the work and increase their income by pointing their brushes with the moisture from their tongue. As years went by, these women in this "safe" job developed bone pain and cancer from the radium in the paint.

Their story illustrates the need to look at safety issues for all women in the workplace.

A recent publication from the National Center for Health Statistics says that 94 percent of women and 99 percent of men have been employed at some time in their lives.

The same report notes, however, that at the time of the survey only 56 percent of women were employed, compared with 76 percent of men. The figures indicate that this difference was due to the fact that 33 percent of women and only 1 percent of men had left work because of child or family care.

These figures show that a woman must be concerned about whether working conditions are safe not only for her, but also for the fetus she may be carrying.

Are the working conditions for U.S. women safe?

In general, women's workplaces would be considered safe. Since most data focus on only a single work site and its hazards, conclusions are limited. However, data from 1980 and from 1988 compare the type of work that women do now and did about a decade ago.

It may not surprise anyone that women are still primarily working in service, administrative and professional jobs. Only 1 percent of women work in occupations such as farm foremen or laborers. A recent article on the health of U.S. workers points out that those women who do have these jobs have more disability than men.

Accidents are only part of the problem. The most common problems arise from so-called "repeated activities" such as bending or twisting the body or the wrists, and they affect both sexes almost equally.

Over a year, 5 percent of both men and women will complain of tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome and 19 percent will have recurring problems with their neck, back and spine.

Only 3 percent of women have stopped working because of work-related health problems. Most job-related health problems result only in absenteeism and reduced productivity. The possibility that a problem could be job-related may be overlooked by both the woman and her doctor.

Both men and women could be exposed to chemicals that would affect their sperm and eggs even before they conceive. And the fetus may continue to be exposed to a workplace hazard along with her mother throughout the pregnancy.

A recent paper examined the risk of shift work. Women who worked on fixed evening or night shifts had risks of pregnancy loss about four times higher than women who worked on fixed day shifts. The few who worked on rotating shifts did not have increased miscarriages. The difference was not due to chemical or physical factors in the workplace.

The evidence on the influence of shift work and its impact on reproduction is still not clear. The medical community has long been concerned about the impact of changing hours on normal circadian rhythms.

Among the changes that can take place is a variation in the output of the hormone melatonin, which normally rises during the hours of darkness. This hormone can be suppressed by the presence of bright artificial light.

Melatonin plays a role in controlling all types of bodily functions, including hormone production. Scientists will be conducting further research on melatonin and shift work, to determine if they can prevent the detrimental effects of night shift work.

Dr. Genevieve Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is a founding director of the school's Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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