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Pregnancy Policies

Others' comments November 2002. From Labsafety-L Bulletin Board discussion about pregnancy policies; these are not Purdue or Purdue Chemistry Policies.

Despite increasing concern that occupational and environmental exposure to chemicals may lead to problems during pregnancy, only a limited number of chemicals are known to produce teratogenic effects in humans, but many other compounds are suspected human teratogens. The enormous number of chemicals, complexity of human reproductive biology, and the influence of other factors (ex: smoking, diet, environment) makes isolating the effects of exposure to a given chemical very difficult.

Due to this uncertainty, a pregnant woman working in a lab should exercise caution when handling or working with any chemicals. Women should notify their supervisor or instructor when they become pregnant so the potential hazards in the lab can be assessed and appropriate protective measures can be taken. Examine each case on an individual basis. In consultation with the woman and her doctor, this assessment can result in one of three possibilities:

  • Continue to work in the lab without any change.
  • Continue to work in the lab with some changes to the type of work procedures performed, or to the work environment and protective equipment. 
  • Discontinue work in the lab for the duration of pregnancy.
  • Some changes that may need to be considered include:
  • Examine chemicals used in the lab for possible teratogens and remove them from use or reassign work with these to another person. 
  • Take extra care to avoid exposure to, and exercise caution whenever handling or working with, any chemicals.
  • Be especially vigilant about personal protective equipment. Use extra personal protective equipment if necessary.
  • Perform all work with chemicals in a fume hood, or using other suitable engineering controls.

If the decision is made to discontinue lab work, then the woman should be afforded other equally valid work for the duration of her pregnancy.  Students in teaching labs should not be penalized for failing to perform lab work on account of pregnancy. Alternative, equally valid learning experiences should be made available. This may include computer simulation of the lab experiments, demonstrations as opposed to hands-on lab work, or other methods as appropriate.

One option that is not available is to prohibit a pregnant woman from working in the lab. Under The Manitoba Human Rights Code, women cannot be unreasonably discriminated against in any aspect of employment because of pregnancy, the possibility of pregnancy or circumstances related to pregnancy.  Discrimination against a pregnant woman by refusing her employment, firing her or treating her differently in terms, conditions or benefits of employment is against the law unless the discrimination is based on reasonable job requirements and qualifications.  However, the Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Act requires that employers ensure, as much as is reasonably practical, the health and safety of their employees, and workers must co-operate with employers in this task. Finding the proper balance between these two is the challenge to be met.  

Note that the period of greatest susceptibility to teratogens is the first 8-12 weeks of pregnancy, which includes a period when the woman herself may not know she is pregnant. Women of childbearing age, and especially those attempting to become pregnant, should take precautions similar to those outlined above.  Many of these are simply the same good lab practices that should be practiced by everyone in the lab; it should simply require more vigilance in following safe work practices. 

Teaching Assistant manual "Instructions and Policies for Teaching Assistants in Chemistry Laboratories", 7th edition, 2000.

"If there is a pregnant student in your laboratory: Remember that her condition is confidential. You should inform the Instructor of the course and the Safety Director. The student may seek your advice on whether she should remain in the laboratory. For legal reasons, do not offer your opinion. Tell the student to contact the Safety Director as soon as possible. The Department of Chemistry has a formal process in place to work with the student and her physician. The Safety Director will contact you regarding any additional safety precautions that should be taken by the pregnant student in your laboratory. Thank you for your cooperation. "

After the TA or faculty member sends the student to my office, I obtain the name and Fax number of the attending physician. I Fax the physician a list of chemicals and solutions (with the hazard class) that the student would be handling in the lab. I don't give the list to the student because it contains confidential info about unknowns, which could affect her grade. Then, the student meets with her physician to make a decision based on her medical history and the info that I sent.

In my 11 years as Safety Director at WVU, only one physician has advised his student to drop her lab, due to her medical history (several past miscarriages) and he was reluctant to allow her to stand on her feet for 3 hours at a time.