One in four new mothers working on the job full-time are breast-feeding, nearly double the rate from 1996, and the highest rate ever recorded, according to the December 2002 issue ofPediatrics. Results are based on a survey by Ross Products Division of Abbott Laboratories consisting of 1.4 million questionnaires mailed to new mothers in 2001. Breast-feeding among working women is expected to grow due to changes in public health policies, new state laws, and better support for this practice by employers.

Breast milk is superior to baby formula because it includes the mother's disease-fighting antibodies along with great nutrition. And there's benefit for the mother, too. New research finds that women who breast-feed have a 50 percent less chance of developing breast cancer, although more studies are needed to determine why this is so.

Most women who work full-time leave their infant with a baby-sitter or place the infant in a child care program. These infants may be fed their mother's milk by having the mother pump and store her breast milk - a practice that women may have to perform a couple times a day while at work.

Contaminated food?

Along with the rise in breast-feeding is a rising concern over a woman's body burden of chemicals. Could toxic chemicals in breast milk, such as those acquired at work, harm a developing infant? Bill Moyer's TV special, "Kids and Chemicals" (PBS December 27, 2002) sounded a public alarm on this possibility. Dr. Sandra Steingraber, biologist and cancer activist, claims that of all human food, "breast milk is the most contaminated."

Pressure to identify toxic chemicals in breast milk is growing for other reasons, too. In October 2002, a Reuters news report showed that American women are getting breast cancer, the leading cause of death among U.S. women aged 34-55, at three times the rate from 50 years ago. The rise in breast cancer coincides with growing use of synthetic chemicals since World War II.

Researchers claim the best way to track the chemicals within a woman's body is by monitoring chemicals in breast milk. In 2003, California is expected to become the first state to pass legislation requiring the monitoring of chemicals in breast milk to determine a possible linkage between a woman's body burden of chemicals and breast cancer.

Figure 1

What can you do?

The best way for employers to address the safety of an employee's breast milk is through a comprehensive workplace reproductive health program. Compliance with OSHA rules and other workplace guidelines isn't enough - the issue is mostly about protecting infant health, not employee health. Integration with OSHA programs, however, is highly beneficial.

The need for workplace reproductive health programs is clear. Nearly one million U.S. women in the workforce may be pregnant at any time. And employers face greater liability now if a child is born with birth defects or developmental disabilities that are related to workplace exposures.

A flow diagram for a workplace reproductive health program is shown in Figure 1.

Space restrictions preclude a full explanation for each activity within this flow diagram. The overall strategy, though, should be evident. The intent is for management and workers to agree on acceptable reproductive health risk.

Failure to do so might be a source of continuing disharmony. This can produce poor attitudes among managers and workers that might lead to production and quality problems. And if disagreements linger or escalate, OSHA, courts, or collective bargaining might enter the picture.

Emerging workplace reproductive health issues might push EHS pros outside of their comfort zone. Managing these issues within a structured format that includes team support and decision-making will help pros achieve the objective of a safe and healthy workplace for everyone who can be impacted by workplace hazards.