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  • International Workplace
  • 29 August 2017
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Dress codes and MSDs: the link identified

Dress codes requiring women to wear high heels at work could be linked to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) according to new research by academics at the University of Aberdeen and published by BMC Public Health.

The research reveals that, while high-heeled shoes can form part of female gender identity, they are detrimental to health.

Recognised as the most significant research in its field, the study identified ‘all review articles of any design that assessed either the psychosexual benefits or negative musculoskeletal health effects of high heels, the latter looking at both the epidemiological and biomechanical perspectives. We additionally considered additional primary studies on areas that had not been reviewed before or in which a marked lack of evidence had been noted. The most up-to-date epidemiological review provides clear evidence of an association between high heel wear and hallux valgus, musculoskeletal pain and first-party injury,’ the study finds.

According to the HSE, the term MSD covers any injury, damage or disorder of the joints or other tissues in the upper/lower limbs or the back.

The report’s authors conclude:

“Our evidence synthesis clearly shows that high heels bring psychosexual benefits to women but are detrimental to their health. In light of this dilemma, it is important that women’s freedom of choice is respected and that any remaining issues of explicit or implicit compulsion are addressed.”

Commenting on a high profile case from earlier this year in which a receptionist was sent home from PricewaterhouseCoopers for declining to wear high heels, and more than 150,000 people signed a petition calling on the Government to make it illegal for employers to require staff to wear high heels, Michael Ryley, partner in the Employment, Pensions and Immigration team at Weightmans said:

“Dress codes at work can be an emotive issue – but where does the boundary lie between legitimate concerns such as safety at work or the maintenance of corporate identity on the one hand and overt sexism on the other? One might expect there to be clear water between these extremes, but when you read that Aeroflot are reported to prefer selecting slim and attractive stewardesses on the basis that overweight staff would constitute a hazard in an emergency, it is all too easy to see how the distinctions can become blurred.”

According to a parliamentary report, High heels and workplace dress codes, government should substantially increase the penalties available to Employment Tribunals to award against employers who implement discriminatory dress codes at work. At present, it says, such penalties are not sufficient deterrent to breaking the law.

According to the report, the Government has said that the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted the afore mentioned petition is already unlawful. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread. It maintains that:

“It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. We call on the Government to review this area of the law and to ask Parliament to change it, if necessary, to make it more effective.”