What are Reproductive Hazards for Female Workers?

Substances or agents that affect the reproductive health of women or men or the ability of couples to have healthy children are called reproductive hazards. Radiation, some chemicals, certain drugs (legal and illegal), cigarettes, some viruses, and alcohol are examples of reproductive hazards. This article focuses on reproductive hazards in the workplace that affect women and their ability to have healthy children.

The harmful effects of a few agents found in the workplace have been known for many years. For example, more than 100 years ago, lead was discovered to cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and infertility in female pottery workers. Rubella (German measles) was recognized as a major cause of birth defects in the 1940s. However, the causes of most reproductive health problems are still not known. Many of these problems-infertility, miscarriage and low birth weight are fairly common occurrences and affect working and nonworking women.

A reproductive hazard could cause one or more health effects, depending on when the woman is exposed. For example, exposure to harmful substances during the first 3 months of pregnancy might cause a birth defect or a miscarriage. During the last 6 months of pregnancy, exposure to reproductive hazards could slow the growth of the fetus, affect the development of its brain, or cause premature labor. Reproductive hazards may not affect every woman or every pregnancy.

Table 1 lists chemical and physical reproductive hazards for women in the workplace. The list is not complete and is constantly being revised. Therefore, do not assume that a substance is safe if it is missing from the list.

Table 2 lists viruses and other disease-causing (infectious) agents that are found in some workplaces and that have harmful reproductive effects in pregnant women.

Table 1. Chemical and physical agents that are reproductive hazards for women in the workplace


Agent


Observed effects

Potentially exposed workers

Cancer treatment drugs (e.g., methotrexate)

Infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, low birth weight

Health care workers, pharmacists

Certain ethylene glycol ethers such as 2-ethoxyethanol (2EE) and 2-methoxyethanol (2ME)

Miscarriages

 

Electronic and semiconductor workers

Carbon disulfide (CS2)

Menstrual cycle changes

Viscose rayon workers

Lead

Infertility, miscarriage, low birth weight, developmental
disorders

Battery makers,
solderers, welders, radiator repairers, bridge repainters,
firing range workers, home remodelers

Ionizing radiation (e.g., X-rays and gamma rays)

Infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, low birth weight, developmental disorders, childhood cancers

Health care workers, dental personnel, atomic workers

Strenuous physical labor  (e.g., prolonged standing, heavy lifting)

Miscarriage late in pregnancy, premature delivery

Many types of workers

 

Table 2. Disease-causing agents that are reproductive hazards for women in the workplace

Agent

Observed effects

Potentially exposed workers


Preventive measures

Cytomegalovirus (CMV)

Birth defects, low birth weight, developmental disorders

Health care workers, workers in contact with infants and children

Good hygienic  practices such as handwashing

Hepatitis B virus

Low birth weight

Health care workers

Vaccination

Human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV)

Low birth weight, childhood cancer

Health care workers

Practice universal precautions

Human parvovirus B19

Miscarriage

Health care workers, workers in contact with infants and children

Good hygienic  practices such as handwashing

Rubella (German measles)

Birth defects, low birth weight

Health care workers, workers  in contact with  infants and  children

Vaccination before pregnancy if no prior
immunity

Toxoplasmosis

Miscarriage, birth defects, developmental disorders

Animal care workers,
veterinarians

Good hygiene  practices such as handwashing

Varicella-zoster virus (chicken pox)

Birth defects, low birth weight

Health care workers, workers in contact with infants
and children

Vaccination before pregnancy if no prior
immunity

 Women with immunity through vaccinations or earlier exposures are not generally at risk from diseases such as hepatitis B, human parvovirus B19, German measles, or chicken pox. But pregnant women without prior immunity should avoid contact with infected children or adults.

 Women should also use good hygienic practices such as frequent hand washing to prevent the spread of infectious diseases among workers in elementary schools, nursery schools, and daycare centers. In addition, they should use universal precautions-such as glove wearing and safe disposal of needles-to protect against disease-causing agents found in blood.