WOMEN AND WORK HAZARDS 1977-1990
The Women and Work Hazards group was started in 1977 by women in BSSRS at a time when the politics of women at work was becoming prominent. It was felt that the hazards movement was overlooking issues that were key for women workers and that the women’s liberation movement was overlooking women’s health at work. Little attention was being paid to hazards for women workers, including in jobs where women formed the major part of the workforce, such as offices, hospitals, homeworking and the clothing industry. Very little research had been done on work-related illness and most of what existed was based on male workers. Another emerging issue was the beginnings of a move to exclude pregnant or fertile women from certain jobs because of potential hazards to the embryo and fetus, rather than making the workplace safe for all.
The aim of the group was to shift the focus away from a concentration on women’s reproductive health, which was a core issue for the women’s movement, to generate discussion and provide information on broader issues affecting women at work. This included recognition that not only conditions in the workplace affected women’s health, but also the family, community and social context of women’s lives interacted with workplace health.
The group met regularly until 1990 at the Rowntree Trust building in Poland Street, London and then at Wild Court off Kingsway. The background of those in the group was in the trade unions, health and safety law, academia and the women’s liberation movement. For meetings, around 6-10 women came, but the group was in touch with a wider number of women activists in health and safety working elsewhere or in other groups and this wider network was a source of strength for the London-based collective and those engaged it with.
Activities of the group
· Wrote and published articles, pamphlets and broadsheets (see list below)
· Published ‘Office Workers Survival Handbook’
· Teaching on TU courses
· Participated and led workshops at hazards conferences and women’s conferences
· Were part of the Steering Group that organised one of the largest conferences on Women’s Health (400+participants) held at Islington Green School in 1981.
· Made a film “Bitter Wages” shown on Channel 4 TV in 1985. Funded by the Greater London Council Women’s Committee. A documentary exploring, through interviews with women workers, the effects of work on women’s health, including the issues of poor working conditions and wages, stress, chemicals, noise, lifting, sexual harassment, migrant workers, and homeworkers. The film was made available for hire or sale from Cinema of Women with an accompanying pamphlet. As one of the women participating in the film said “I am no Elizabeth Taylor, but if it gets women interested...”
· Responded to numerous inquiries from women workers, women’s groups and other organisations around the UK and abroad (even from as far away as Fiji), with advice and information. The highest amount of correspondence concerned working with VDUs (visual display units – the predecessors of modern computer screens).
· Collaborated with other groups such as trade unions, City Centre (for office workers), Women’s Health Information Centre, London Homeworking Campaign and BSSRS Hazards groups.
As in the rest of the women’s movement, the group worked as a collective. None of the articles carried author names – individuals did not take credit, all went out as ‘Women and Work Hazards Group’. The emphasis was on reaching working women who did not themselves have the time or perhaps the belief that they could influence their conditions at work. The group recognised that there was a wealth of valuable health and safety information in the scientific and other literature, which – pre-Internet – was largely inaccessible to women workers. The group’s research, writing and communications skills could be used to translate some of this information, in an accessible form, directly to women affected. This took the issue of occupational health out of the academic sphere and into an engagement with workers, the trades unions, the left and the women’s movement.
What impact did WWH have? What relevance does it have now?
With its feminist approach, it was part of the wider women’s movement which, collectively, has had a huge influence on women’s lives. In striving to translate important information on health and safety into readily accessible publications and hold workshops, it reached a wide audience of working women and provided a catalyst for women to organise and take up issues in their workplace. The value of the strategy of the left, that ‘information is power’, was evident from the group’s collaborations and interactions with women workers. The group also helped identify and publicise new information emerging from occupational and sociological research activities in universities in the UK and North America and from individual researchers who were looking at areas like stress, homeworking and office work, on an unpaid basis in their own time.
As for the broader legacy of what those involved took to their later activities, the women involved continued in other parallel or different activities, with the confidence that activism can get things done without the involvement of formal state or political institutions, that women can take control of their lives and their health, and that bringing about change is most effective when information and those who need it are brought together. As part of the wider women’s movement, the work of the Women and Work Hazards Group has had a lasting structural and practical impact on women’s lives.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Women and Work Hazards Group. Publicity and publications leaflet. Undated.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Danger Women’s Work. Article in Spare Rib. From a BSSRS pamphlet. Undated.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Parents: you are at risk? Hazards Bulletin #12. Aug 1978.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. No Great Expectations. Hazards Bulletin #13
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Equal Exploitation. Hazards Bulletin #?
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Protective Legislation – Who Needs It? Hazards Bulletin #13.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Hard Days at the Office. 1-page broadsheet. Hazards Bulletin #10
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group Office Workers' Survival Handbook 1981 and revised edition Marianne Craig with Eileen Phillips. The Women's Press, London 1991.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group and the London Homeworking Campaign. Health Hazards and Homework. 4-page broadsheet. Undated. (also translated into Urdu)
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Danger Women at Work. 8-page broadsheet. Undated.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Women’s Health Work and Stress. . 4-page broadsheet. Undated. Copies from Women’s Health Information Collective, London and BSSRS.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Home Helps. 4-page broadsheet. Undated.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Bitter Wages. Booklet accompanying the film made for and with the Women and Work Hazards Group. 1984. Film edited and directed by Audrey Droisen, funded by the GLC Women’s Committee. Original copyright Women and Work Hazards Group and Iriscope. Screened on Channel 4 1985 (film now in the British Film Institute National Film Archive).
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Women Workers and Health Hazards. Written for Health Struggles and Community Action, Pluto Press, London.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Photocopier Hazards. 1-page broadsheet and Hazards Bulletin 26, p6. Extracted from Women and Work Hazards Group publication “Office Worker’s Survival Handbook”. Undated.
BSSRS. Hairdressing. 1-page broadsheet and Hazards Bulletin 26, p7. Undated.
BSSRS Women and Work Hazards Group. Work can damage your health. Article in Everywoman, July 1989.
Who were we?
And finally – in a break with the past – here are the names of some of those involved in the Women and Work Hazards Group
Marianne Craig, Barbara Harrison, Jenny Popay, Sue Barlow, Dorothy Wigmore, Charmian Kenner
Elspeth McVeigh, Jude Connor, Claire Marie Fortin, Jenny Ratcliffe