A Litany of Hazards

Black and white drawing of women hanging up document on corkboard in workplace

Lauren Jones

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 4, "Working Women: A Handbook of Resources, Rights, and Remedies." Find more from that issue here.

Job stress and reproductive hazards are among the least recognized and most serious occupational dangers. An effective workers’ organization is indespensible to eliminate them from the workplace. 

Right now, we are undergoing a terrible change and turmoil at the Bell system. ... You talk about stress, strain, nervousness. You find people with ulcers, alcoholics, people with bad stomachs, people taking pills, hypertension, high blood pressure. I’ve walked out of the office, beat my fists on the steering wheel driving home and cried. And I’m not a crier. When you see me cry, I'm mad — mad because of what strain I worked under that day. 

— Connie S. 

In the heart of the female job ghetto, there is a storm center of “change and turmoil” involving new technology, the reorganization of work and the efforts of workers to protect their jobs and their health. 

The origin of the controversy is the application of computer technology to office work. Data banks are replacing the metal file cabinet, word processors are taking the place of typewriters. For employers, computer systems promise higher productivity, instantaneous transfer of information from one location to another, reduced labor costs and other rewards. But for office workers, computerization has often brought monotony, loss of control over their daily tasks and an array of health hazards. 

Norma B. spends most of her eight-hour work day in front of a video display terminal (VDT), a machine with a typewriter-like keyboard and a screen that displays information to the operator. Used in banks, airports, insurance companies and elsewhere, the VDT is the workhorse of the computerized office. It can be hooked into a central computer for data entry and retrieval, or used to write and automatically edit newspaper copy, letters and reports. But for workers like Norma, the VDT is at best a mixed blessing: 

When I first started in this job, I didn’t have to wear my glasses all that often. As I continued and started working more on the VDTs, I started wearing my glasses more. My eyes got very, very tired. Because the screen is curved, if the light hits it just right you have a blind spot, so you have to adjust your head, jerk your head around. That’s why I tend to slump, to slouch way down in my chair — because it makes it easier to read the screen. 

I had an eye exam just before I started work and an eye exam over a year later. Both eyes had become worse. The optometrist said it was one of three things: that my body was still growing and changing, that it was hereditary or — she thought this was more likely — because of my job. 

Vision deterioration is one of the most serious hazards associated with VDTs. But it is by no means the only danger. Fears about the unknown health consequences of radiation coming from the machines have prompted some workers to demand regular monitoring of radiation levels. Back and neck pain, high stress levels, headaches and dizziness are other frequent complaints from VDT operators. A recent study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that workers constantly using the terminals for strictly clerical tasks have higher stress levels than any other group of workers the agency has studied. Among the NIOSH recommendations were the use of screen hoods and anti-glare filters, relocation of terminals to reduce the glare and contrast from overhead lights and windows, and a 15-minute break every hour for operators with a heavy work load or repetitive tasks. 

The controversy over VDTs, however, is only one aspect of a far-reaching transformation in the nature of office work. In ways similar to the early introduction of mass production in Henry Ford’s auto plants, office work is being reorganized into an information assembly line. In large corporations, the personal secretary is a vanishing species, reserved for top executives. Replacing her is a pool of machine operators, each performing a routine task — key punching, word processing, electronic filing — over and over again. Supervision is relentless, but it has no human face: VDTs and other computerized equipment can print out the operators' productivity, accuracy and break-time at regular intervals. 

But the changing nature of office work is like the advent of the industrial assembly line in another way: it is encouraging workers to organize. Finding that speed-up, stress, more routinized work and other problems cannot be challenged effectively by isolated individuals, office workers are turning toward unions as a source of collective strength and leverage. Those few who are already in unions are in some cases becoming more active. 

June R., for example, is a union steward in the Communications Workers of America. She works in the business office in a Southern subsidiary of AT&T — Ma Bell. In her office, the speed-up accompanying computerization produced such intolerable stress that she decided to do something: 

The girls were going berserk, and I said, ‘'Hey, we ’ve just got to slow our calls down. Do what you can do while you’re on line, put that customer on hold, close out your memos, write your orders and just put them on hold. You ’re going to take less calls and you ’re going to get your work done. You’re not going to have things stacking up.” So everybody started doing that. We slowed down and it worked. 

In our office, it was a matter of coming in and getting the employees here to join together. To realize we’re not out against this person or that person, we’re a whole, and we’ve got to do something together. Now the girls in the office are like that. They stick together. 


Office work is of course not the only “traditionally female” job with occupational dangers. Laundry workers and dry-cleaners, for example, may come in contact with a variety of potent chemicals. Long-term exposure to solvents like trichloroethylene, used in dry-cleaning, can lead to permanent liver damage. Meat-wrappers, 98 percent of whom are women, can develop “meat-wrappers’ asthma,” a serious respiratory condition caused by inhaling the fumes released when plastic is cut with a hot wire. 

Women who break into industrial jobs in steel, auto, coal mines and elsewhere confront the same multitude of hazards as their male co-workers. But many also suffer from the stress caused by isolation, sexual harassment and discrimination. At a large corporation in West Virginia, a sex discrimination suit recently resulted in the hiring of small numbers of women in outside construction work previously reserved for men. One woman recounted her experience there: 

Women who work on the outside, oh, the stress that they go through just in everyday hassles with the supervisors. They ’re still discriminated against outside, especially by the male foremen. They still get the worst jobs — constantly. 

Two of us who were working outside are now pregnant. They slapped us right into entry-level clerk jobs, $60 a week cut in pay. You show me one man on temporary disability that they’ve ever brought in and put on an entry-level clerk job, cut his pay $60 a week. They would never even consider doing that to a man. I’m pregnant now. I don’t need this worry every day. Don’t they realize that of all the times in my life I need that money now more than I’ve ever needed it?” 

Discrimination against the pregnant worker has an even uglier counterpart in discrimination against the “potentially pregnant” woman working in a job with reproductive hazards. In 1977, corporate officials at an American Cyanamid plant in Willow Island, West Virginia, informed seven women workers that they could “choose” between becoming sterilized and keeping their jobs or being transferred to janitorial positions with a cut in pay. The women were working with lead, which can damage the nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system — in both women and men. Five women underwent sterilization, and the publicity surrounding their situation lifted the problem of workplace reproductive hazards into the national spotlight. Labor unions like the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, of which these women are members, have taken the position that management should “change the workplace, not the worker,” and make it safe for all. However, neither management nor the federal government has been so protective of workers’ well-being: the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, a federal appeal board, ruled in April, 1981, that Cyanamid’s policy did not constitute a work-related health hazard, and dismissed a citation against the company. 

It is revealing that employers in the health care industry — where there are potent reproductive hazards like x-rays and anesthetic gases — have not suggested exclusion or sterilization of women workers. The difference, of course, is that 75 percent of the work force in health care is female. Anesthetic gases are associated with a high rate of spontaneous abortions — not only among female employees, but also among the wives of male workers. X-rays and ethylene oxide (used to sterilize heat-sensitive equipment) are both linked to birth defects in the children of exposed workers. Ironically, the apparently sanitized environment of health care presents serious occupational dangers. Ellen H. graduated from nursing school in 1953 and has worked on and off ever since in hospitals and clinics. 

Oh, there are many hazards in the hospital – exposure to radiation, continuous exposure to all the disease processes known to mankind. You work with these and deal with them on a daily basis. If you are working directly in the operating room, then the anesthetic gases are a tremendous threat, breathing them over and over again on a continuous basis. 

Shift work is another problem. People that have never done shift work I don’t think can possibly begin to understand the stress that goes with that. You ’re working holidays when everyone else in your family is off. You miss Thanksgiving, you miss Christmas. When you work night duty, bounce back to work day duty a couple of days, then go on three to 11, there are times when you really literally do not know whether you are coming or going, your system is so upset. 

All of these things accumulate. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It takes an accumulation of many, many factors. But it seems like every nurse I talk with these days is burned out. 

Ten-question “stress tests,” glossy articles on employee “burnout,” stress management workshops — their proliferation suggests that stress has become the pop psychology issue of the 1980s. Most of this current barrage of information and gimmicks is permeated with the message that stress derives from the individual s inability to cope with the “pressures of modern life.” The solution, therefore, is to learn relaxation and other groovy coping techniques. No wonder that many companies are pushing such programs, for they hide the reality that much stress derives from monotony, oversupervision and other abhorrent aspects of work. 

Indeed, stress may be one of the most serious and, until recently, least recognized occupational hazards in the U.S. Among its most important sources are a heavy workload, job insecurity, monotony, machine pacing and a lack of control over one’s work. For many women, there is the additional problem of the double shift — the combination of home and work responsibilities that can virtually eliminate time for leisure and recuperation. 

Daily exposure to a highly stressful workplace can lead to severe health troubles, including ulcers, psychological disorders and heart disease — the leading cause of death for adults in the U.S. Certain occupations consistently top the list of the most stressful, as measured by the incidence of these health problems among workers. A recent NIOSH study found that three of the top 12 most stressful occupations were in the female job ghetto; six of the top 28 were in health care alone. Stress on the job presents a special problem and challenge to workers who would improve their occupational health. Combating it means challenging basic characteristics of certain jobs and the frequently taken-for-granted authority of management to determine the nature of work. Taking up the problem of stress means taking on management in a long-term struggle for power; at stake are what considerations will determine the conditions of work. 

For this struggle an effective workers’ organization is indispensable. Unionization does not win the battle for occupational health, but it makes it possible. As June R., the union steward who organized a slowdown to combat stress in her office, put it: 

My union to me now is my backbone. It’s our job security, it’s our good wages, it’s our right to a voice, it’s our benefits, it’s everything to me — as a woman and as a worker.