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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Protecting pregnant employees in the U.S.

August 12, 2006
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Note: This is the second in a three-part series.

In last month’s column we learned that it’s difficult to protect a pregnant employee in the U.S. A pregnant employee and her physician, with the employer as an interface, will determine if workplace risks are acceptable or not. The feds don’t want to intervene with rules.

To effectively protect pregnant employees, U.S. employers generally need to follow the research, guidelines and laws coming out of the European region of countries.

European guidelines

In November 2000, the Commission of European Communities issued guidelines on the “assessment of the chemical, physical and biological agents and industrial processes considered hazardous for the safety or health of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding.” These guidelines, which are the basis for laws addressing hazards to pregnant employees in the EU member states, can be found at http://europa.eu.int/eur-lex/en/com/cnc/2000/com2000_0466en02.pdf.

ICSC

International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSC), http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ipcs/icstart.html, are developed and prepared as a joint effort by the World Health Organization, International Labour Organization, United Nations Environmental Programme, and the European Commission. ICSCs are common in Europe. Where needed, an ICSC will state, “AVOID EXPOSURE TO PREGNANT WOMEN.” Other workplace precautions during pregnancy, such as MAK pregnancy risk group classification, will be found in an ICSC, as appropriate.

MAK pregnancy risk groups

If a pregnant employee is exposed to a chemical with an OSHA PEL, NIOSH REL, or ACGIH® TLV®, what would be the risk to a developing embryo or fetus? You’d have to figure this out on your own by researching the toxicological information for the chemical. The Federal Republic of Germany’s Maximum Concentration Values in the Workplace (MAK), however, provides this information.

MAK pregnancy classification has four groups: A, B, C, and D. Group A presents the worst risk and indicates that damage to the developing embryo or fetus has been unequivocally demonstrated and exposure to a pregnant employee “can lead to damage of the developing organism even when the MAK (and BAT, Biological Tolerance Value for Working Materials) values are observed.” Group C (about 120 chemicals currently fall into this group) provides the following reassuring definition, “There is no reason to fear a risk of damage to the developing embryo or fetus when MAK and BAT values are observed.” Group D chemicals may pose pregnancy risks, but more research is needed before the chemical can be classified as A, B, or C.

REACH legislation

The new European legislation REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/reach/index_en.htm, expected to be in force by April 2007, should greatly add to the number of chemicals having a MAK pregnancy group and germ cell mutagen classification. REACH requires chemical manufacturers and importers to show that chemicals are safe by conducting toxicological tests.

PINCHE

During 2003-2006 the Policy Interpretation Network on Children’s Health and the Environment (PINCHE), http://www.pinche.hvdgm.nl/, undertook a massive project to evaluate the results from all scientific studies dealing with children’s health (beginning in pregnancy) and the environment. PINCHE findings helped clarify certain chemical and physical risks to pregnant employees.

NewGeneris

PINCHE, and other legislative efforts in Europe, are contributing to major new studies on reproductive and developmental health. For example, the NewGeneris (Newborns and Genotoxic Exposure Risks) study launched in February 2006 is one of the largest studies ever of its kind. NewGeneris will examine environmental exposures using biomonitoring data from 300,000 pregnant women throughout Europe to determine effects on the fetus and subsequent health on the child. Approximately one-half of this study population will be pregnant employees.

Due diligence

Birth defects affect about one in every 33 babies born in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given that about 55 percent of all children born each year in the U.S. are born to a pregnant employee, workplace hazards deserve attention as a possible risk for birth defects. Legal due diligence requires that employers assess and communicate to employees workplace risks to a healthy pregnancy.

Next month, we’ll complete this series with tips on how to communicate workplace pregnancy risks to an employee.

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