Posted by Dennis Stephens, MD, ABFM, Associate Medical Director, WorkCare
While the ongoing United States Supreme Court case Peggy Young vs. United Parcel Service (UPS) deals primarily with discrimination issues, it shines a spotlight on reproductive health in the workplace.
About 75 percent of women in the workforce are of reproductive age, and more than half of new mothers are employed. Both men and women are asking us at WorkCare: What are some of the potential risks to pregnant employees in the workplace?
Most employees are able to safely perform their jobs throughout pregnancy. However, pregnancy can sometimes directly affect worker safety. For example, a pregnant worker may find that personal protective equipment (PPE) such as lab coats or some types of respirators no longer fit correctly. Similarly, a woman’s shifting center of gravity may make heavy lifting hazardous in the later stages of pregnancy because of an increased risk of losing her balance or falling.
Moderate physical activity is generally regarded as healthy for employees with uncomplicated pregnancies. It also can provide benefits to women with gestational diabetes. Activities with a high risk of falling or abdominal trauma should be avoided. There may be some risk associated with prolonged motionless standing, excessive physical exertion or working in extreme temperatures.
Exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace can also affect the health of a pregnancy. Although occupational exposure limits have been established to protect workers, there is little research that specifically addresses reproductive hazards. Several agents are known to be reproductive hazards, including lead, ionizing radiation and certain ethylene glycol ethers. However, most chemicals in the workplace have not been evaluated for reproductive toxicity.
Some steps pregnant employees can take to minimize risk to themselves and their fetus include:
- Washing hands after contact with potentially hazardous substances and before eating or drinking.
- Using PPE (gloves, respirators and specific types of clothing) to reduce hazard exposures.
- Avoiding bringing contaminated clothing or other objects home. If work clothes must be brought home, they should be transported a sealed plastic bag and washed separately from other laundry.
- Reviewing safety information (e.g., Safety Data Sheets) for chemicals in the workplace.
- Participating in all workplace safety and health education, training and monitoring programs.
The majority of workers can safely continue their regular job duties throughout pregnancy. If an employee has any concerns about her specific workplace reproductive hazards she should discuss them with onsite employee health personnel or clinic staff (if applicable) and her obstetrician or other personal medical provider.
About Peggy Young v United Parcel Service
At issue in this Supreme Court case is whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act “requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.”
Lower courts have ruled in the employer’s favor, which describes its policies as “pregnancy-neutral” and governed by a collective bargaining agreement that does not apply to the plaintiff.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not expressly mandate that employers make accommodations for pregnant women. The plaintiff’s position is that she was required to go on unpaid maternity leave when she could have been placed in a modified-duty assignment to accommodate a recommendation from her doctor that she lift no more than 20 pounds. At UPS, the ability to lift up to 70 pounds is considered an essential job function.
A separate piece of proposed legislation, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, would make it illegal for employers, employment agencies and labor organizations to:
- fail to make reasonable accommodations for limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth or medical conditions of job applicants or employees, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on business operations.
- deny employment opportunities based on the need to make reasonable accommodations.
- require job applicants or employees to accept an accommodation that they choose not to accept.
- require employees to take leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided to address their known limitations.
No substantive action was taken on the proposed fairness act before Congress adjourned this year.