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Q&A: Keeping Pregnant Workers Safe and Healthy on the Job

May 10, 2023
Pregnant worker smiling on the phone next to a colleague while sitting in a chair

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It addresses pregnancy loss.

Pregnant workers may encounter safety and health hazards in the workplace, and they need to be aware of how workplace conditions could affect their health or the health of their baby. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act aims to better protect pregnant team members by requiring certain employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” during and after a pregnancy.

Rachel Walla-Housman, CSP, CIH, safety consultant at Ally Safety, recently joined “The Case for Safety Podcast” and spoke with host Scott Fowler to discuss how the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will impact safety professionals and employers.

Fowler: I thought we could start by talking about how to work safely while pregnant, as well as activities and exposures pregnant workers should avoid.

Walla-Housman: Yeah, absolutely. So, to just give everybody a little bit of context here, I've been in the safety industry for 12 years now and last year I got pregnant. It was my first time dealing with pregnancy in an industrial environment. Of course, I've interacted with others who were pregnant at work, but this was my first time experiencing it firsthand.

As soon as you get pregnant, you get this huge list of things you can't eat and shouldn't do anymore. But when it comes to the workplace, there's very little information, if any. I did some research for my YouTube channel to provide information for others who were pregnant and probably going through some of the same confusing things.

There were a couple of things that I found that were most important to discuss. First and foremost, I learned not to fall prey to pressure. There are many stereotypes about pregnancy, and no one wants to seem like they’re slacking off or causing more work for others.

Many pregnant workers will do as much or more than usual, just to show they're still a committed and functioning member of the team. They push through a lot of difficulties and uncomfortable situations to show that performance. Those stereotypes, if they're causing pregnant people to push too hard, can lead to workplace incidents.

The next thing I learned is to understand the chemical hazards you may encounter. That could be as simple looking up your company safety data sheets. And when you look those up, you want to look for a couple things, including reproductive toxins, embryo toxins (which are especially concerning during the first trimester) and teratogens.

The next thing is if you work somewhere where you may be exposed to radiation — such as a dental office where they do a lot of X-rays or anywhere with radiation in the industrial world — you have to do what's called “declaring your pregnancy.”

Now, this can be really uncomfortable for some people because it is an official declaration and you want to do it before you've even told friends and family that you're pregnant — early in that first trimester — because the thing is, the dose of radiation that's allowed during pregnancy is much lower than it is for the average worker.

During pregnancy, your radiation dose must stay under 500 millirem. When you're not pregnant, it's 5,000 for an entire year, so it is a huge difference. It may be uncomfortable to make the formal pregnancy declaration, but make sure you do it.

The last things I learned were related to lifting. Pregnant workers are going to have less lifting capacity. Part of that is just because of the body mechanics of being pregnant. Your balance is way off and just carrying things in front of you becomes much more uncomfortable during the later trimesters. You're also more susceptible to certain musculoskeletal disorders, especially carpal tunnel syndrome.

As a safety pro, I hadn't really encountered these issues that much. Many people are unaware of the hazards and challenges. If you've never been pregnant before, it can be hard to identify what people are going through.

Fowler: You mentioned workers should talk to employers early in a pregnancy. Is that the time to start determining appropriate accommodations?

Walla-Housman: It's good to keep employers involved and let them know early. Of course, it is kind of uncomfortable because there's always the possibility of miscarriage or complications. But the thing is, your employer is not going to be the be-all-end-all expert on your specific limitations and the accommodations you need.

Work with your personal physician because pregnancies can be very different. We don't want employers to assume every pregnant worker needs the same accommodations, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 actually prohibits employers from doing too much of that.

Fowler: There's an important piece of legislation on the horizon aimed at providing pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations. It’s called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. What do safety professionals need to know?

Walla-Housman: This act is going to go into effect on June 27 of 2023. So, it's not very far away and we need people to be aware of it and what it's going to affect.

It applies to any company with 15 employees or more, and it's a civil rights law. It requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations. Now when we talk about reasonable accommodations, they're going to be things that parallel the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Think of things like light duty, lifting limitations, rest, the ability to keep a water bottle at your station, having a chair available — things that seem very minimal but are important when you're pregnant.

Before this legislation passed, all we really had was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. And that protects pregnant people from discrimination, but only if they have a disability related to pregnancy or childbirth.

Unless you had a very severe condition associated with pregnancy, you weren't guaranteed protections. Now, you are guaranteed protections both during pregnancy and while recovering from childbirth. And you can expect these reasonable accommodations without fear of retaliation. The legislation also clarifies what employers are required to do.

Fowler: Who is covered under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?

Walla-Housman: Pregnant employees are covered if their employer has 15 employees or more. It covers workers temporarily through pregnancy and recovery. The big thing that makes this different from the Americans With Disabilities Act is that it is a temporary protection.

Fowler: What is prohibited under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?

Walla-Housman: OK, so this one is a little bit tricky for safety professionals. But remember, you don't take responsibility as a safety pro for determining the proper accommodations. Ultimately that's going to be up to the employee and their doctor. So just remember, that is one thing that's prohibited. Sometimes we want to run in there and be a little bit overprotective when we see people who need accommodations, but that's inappropriate in this case, and we can't really assume what somebody needs. Allow them to take the lead with their physician.

Fowler: What are some examples of reasonable accommodations under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?

Walla-Housman: Examples of accommodations that we would see are things like light duty when it's called for. Lifting limitations could be very helpful during pregnancy, even just riding, lifting aids and carts and things like that to make lifting easier. You could have more frequent rest breaks or bathroom breaks.

Imagine somebody who's working for a tool manufacturer or in any facility where they aren't allowed to have food or drink in their work area. Now, these accommodations may make it possible for those employees, if it's safe, to have things like a water bottle or some crackers around to help with morning sickness — or even a stool or chair to sit on. Some of these are very minor accommodations, but when you are pregnant, they can make all the difference in the world.

Fowler: Does the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act protect people through the postpartum period?

Walla-Housman: It does. All of these protections should cover you during recovery from childbirth, which is a little bit of a gray area because it's not easily defined. Pregnancy has an end date. Recovery can trail on for a while, but keep in mind that as people are recovering from childbirth, we need to make sure they have accommodations.

It's an important time. Employers can't ask too many questions, but consider how procedures like C-sections — where your abdomen is cut — could limit your strength. Keep in mind there are times when people will need to have accommodations during recovery.

Fowler: What distinguishes the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act from the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Walla-Housman: The way that I distinguish the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act from the Americans With Disabilities Act is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is meant to be a temporary protection during pregnancy and childbirth.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is more long term, and workers need to have a disability to be covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act looks at pregnancy as a temporary condition, and you don't have to have a pregnancy-related disability to be covered, which is a huge change.

Now, just to give you a little bit of my experience, I had a pretty healthy pregnancy. I felt pretty good the whole time. But still, I had terrible morning sickness for two weeks. I remember I was at work and even the smell of welding fumes a couple rooms over made me nauseous. Sitting in traffic next to a dump truck and the vibrations coming off the diesel engine made me nauseous. During my last trimester at month eight, I was huge and I had such a hard time walking. I couldn't even bend over to get laundry out of the dryer.

So, think of those things. I did not have a pregnancy-related disability, but at those points I couldn't function normally, and this was a relatively healthy pregnancy and I felt good. For people who have more difficult pregnancies, it can be very difficult to perform daily job tasks.

Fowler: Should workers continue to have conversations with their employers as they recover from childbirth?

Walla-Housman: Yeah, 100%. It's kind of standard not to get a lot of follow-up care until the sixth week. But the thing is, some states have limited maternity leave requirements, so some people are going back to work by then.

Workers need to be proactive, work with physicians and get them to tell employers which accommodations are required to recover as well as possible.

Fowler: Anything else you'd like to add?

Walla-Housman: I would say, during pregnancy, it's important to be your own advocate. Employers may have the right intentions and want to do the right thing, but they may also be underinformed about what they need to do.

And because of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, they are a little bit limited on how many accommodations they can provide without a discussion with a doctor. Workers and doctors need to lead this, and employers can follow from there.

Be your own advocate — that's what I say in any circumstance at work. It’s always helpful to understand chemical and radiation exposures and avoid giving in to pressure. Take your health and safety into your own hands by working with your physician and bringing your employer into the loop.

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