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A good way to understand the work that people perform is to go to the workplace and observe what they do, UQAM professor Karen Messing, an expert in womens workplace health and safety issues, told Health and Safety Conference participants Saturday morning. My background training as a biologist showed me how important observation is when doing my research.

Messing said that today women are still predominantly found in such traditional occupations as cashiers, sales clerks, nurses and housekeeping and health care jobs among others. But the kind of tasks involved in these jobs exposes women to health and safety problems that are quite different from those of their male colleagues.

For more than an hour, Messing shared the results of her teams research with CUPE members who attended the morning plenary session before moving on to their workshops. Her research shows that perceptions can be very deceiving.

For example said Messing, it is common in hospitals to define light and heavy duties, with heavy duties more often ascribed to male jobs. At first glance, it may appear that heavy work involves more lifting that could result in a higher risk of back injuries. But, Messings findings showed that this was contrary to the actual work being performed. Back problems were more often likely to be the result of tasks incorrectly labelled as light duties, because these tasks involved stooping and bending.

In another example of false perceptions, Messing noted that female nurses reported that they asked male workers for help more often than their female counterparts. But the researchers observations of the nurses over several months showed the opposite. While male workers were asked to help with some specific tasks, overall the nurses requested help from female workers much more often. The nurses perceptions were at odds with reality.

Messing also spoke about the invisible sources of stress often involved in womens work that need to be recognized. She cited an example of a receptionist with a young child. The womans irregular work schedule meant that she was constantly juggling her family life. It was a full-time job in itself for this worker to try and reconcile her hours of work with her family responsibilities, Messing noted.

While women workers had often developed strategies to deal with balancing the conflicting demands of work and family, the university researcher said the strategies were still falling short of what was needed in the deteriorating conditions of todays workplaces. Messing said it was up to unions to find new ways to support women workers and ensure their health and safety needs are being met.