Pregnancy can be a period of great excitement and expectation. For some workers and their families, however, it can be a time for grave concern. A recent study by NIOSH has found that flight attendants might be at higher risk of miscarriage due to sleep disruption, physical job demands, and exposure to cosmic radiation. Birth defects affect 1 out of every 33 births in the United States; a recent study from the CDC has found that certain pesticides can increase the rate of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. Other studies have found increased defects for workers exposed to organic solvents. Chemotherapy drugs can be dangerous for the fetuses of medical professionals delivering them. Other workplace teratogens include radiological materials and heavy metals.
There are few specific regulations that cover the unique physical challenges of pregnancy. As a pregnancy progresses, PPE can fit improperly, a growing abdomen can affect ergonomics and balance, and systemic changes can affect heat tolerance and blood sugar levels. Many women choose not to disclose their pregnancies during the sensitive first trimester when chemical or radiological exposures can wreak the most havoc. Potentially dangerous chemicals can also accumulate in breast milk, endangering new babies. Further, family members can accidentally carry take-home exposures on skin, hair, and clothes that pose dire risk to small children.
Without guaranteed protections, pregnant workers might fear retribution or demotion if they ask for reassignment from physically demanding or dangerous environments. For that reason, HR, occupational health, and safety departments should encourage employees to report pregnancies and develop plans to address workplace hazards. Partners and family members should also be encouraged to take proactive steps to limit take-home exposures. With planning and forethought, pregnant workers can work in a safe environment and lessen—at least some of—the anxiety of impending motherhood.