How to Address Reproductive Health in the Workplace

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Global conversations about reproductive health in the workplace are changing. Amid increasingly urgent concerns surrounding the equal protection of workers, some occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals are taking steps to close the significant gaps in the industry’s understanding of how to support a large employee population: parents.

A new, peer-reviewed article by Morgan M. Bliss, CSP, CIH, (Central Washington University) and Jacob Krzystowczyk, CSP, CIH, (The Albemarle Corp.) titled “Inclusive and Gender: Protecting Workers’ Reproductive Health,” offers a new Susceptible Worker Assessment Program (SWAP) model to assess workplace risks that affect vulnerable groups such as expectant parents. More than that, the researchers also make the case for why such a model is necessary. The article cites 2016 research originally published in The Synergist which shows that 66 percent of women who gave birth to their first child between 2006 and 2008 worked during their pregnancy. It also notes that the index of the The Safety Professionals Handbook does not list relevant terms such as “pregnant,” “breastfeeding” or “reproductive.”

With no peer-reviewed data available to support this global issue, and insufficient U.S. legislation addressing it, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the burden of protecting expectant parents in the workplace currently falls to healthcare professionals and affected individuals. While many OSH professionals would be eager to help employees avoid hazards and make the healthiest choices for their families, the article says the resources available to them are limited to short references in common safety and industrial hygiene texts. These scattered paragraphs focus largely on the occupational exposure limits (OELs) of teratogenic and fetotoxic materials for workers who are breastfeeding, but do not offer guidance for pregnant women or men who are trying to help their partners conceive.

Bliss and Krzystowczyk recommend conducting workplace risk assessments that consider the health needs of all employees, with particular attention to the needs of expectant parents. They say these risks can include working conditions and chemical, biological and other hazards. However, the researchers also cite a 2012 article, originally published in Professional Safety, which acknowledges that some OSH professionals may have a “fear of discovering and documenting certain risks that may be difficult to address or mitigate.”

Their SWAP aims to streamline workplace risk assessments with a reproductive health focus. It is based on the concept of hazard banding, or occupational exposure banding, which helps OSH personnel group chemicals based on their toxicological potency and the health effects associated with exposure to them. The program is designed to be voluntary, so even workers without reproductive concerns can opt in if they choose.

Step One

For those wishing to participate in the SWAP, the first step is to complete a self-evaluation form, which includes a health history questionnaire. Using this form, OSH teams can develop an employee exposure profile that accounts for factors unique to each person’s situation.

Step Two

The second step is for OSH professionals to perform a qualitative risk assessment, place workers into appropriate protection categories and develop a plan to mitigate potential risks.  Bliss and Krzystowczyk say these protection categories should be based on two primary factors: the underlying health concern of each individual and the relative risk of the work they need to perform. For workers who are expectant parents, these underlying health concerns could include attempting to conceive, being pregnant or breastfeeding.

During this process, OSH personnel place workers whose circumstances make them especially vulnerable to chemical or other hazards into the highest category within this SWAP, which is called “Work Safety Category Four.” For example, a Work Safety Category Four employee could be a pregnant woman with occupational exposure to moderate- or low-hazard materials. Control methods for this category include:

  • Establishing regulated or designated areas for the use of high-risk materials
  • Labeling the equipment where high-risk materials are used, present or stored
  • Providing protective equipment such as supplied air respiratory protection

Step Three

The third step is follow-through. OSH team members should ensure that their recommended actions have been taken to address all risks. OSH professionals should not fully delegate this task to front-line supervisors, as they are not fully qualified to perform these assessments, according to Bliss and Krzystowczyk.

Finishing the SWAP

The final steps of the SWAP are assessing exposures, communicating the exposure results and periodically reevaluating hazards. If possible, industrial hygienists should regularly monitor exposure levels and develop an exposure sampling plan with clear and measurable objectives. OSH professionals should regularly produce and publish reports that communicate exposure levels to each worker in meaningful ways. The manner in which each worker receives the results should also be documented, the article says.

If the results of the report show that an employee has been exposed to unacceptable levels of risky materials, they should be re-categorized within the SWAP. If they are already at Work Safety Category Four, supervisors should remove them from their current worksite. Removal due to a hazard should not be held against an employee, as eliminating or controlling worksite materials is the sole responsibility of the employer.

In conjunction with OSH professionals, supervisors, occupational health providers and at-risk workers, industrial hygienists should reevaluate exposure metrics on a monthly basis. Workers can be kept within a SWAP continuously until risks are removed from the workplace. Using this risk assessment tool, which is uniquely suited to the needs of expected parents, OSH teams are better equipped to support workers and their growing families.

 

To read the complete version of “Inclusive and Gender: Protecting Workers’ Reproductive Health,” which originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Professional Safety, click here. Want to receive a monthly subscription to Professional Safety, ASSE’s top-ranked benefit? Become an ASSE member.

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