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Rampant Workplace Hazards Endanger Pregnant Women
(Photo: Neal Gillis / Flickr)

Rampant Workplace Hazards Endanger Pregnant Women

(Photo: Neal Gillis / Flickr)

The accounts read like something from the turn of the 20th century: emergency exit routes blocked and doors padlocked during working hours, rats and vermin, improperly secured mechanical equipment, unsafe gas cylinders.

But it isn't an historical account.

When inspectors from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) entered Conway, a Bronx, New York, clothing store, in December 2011, they found numerous “willful and serious violations of workplace safety,” and gave the owners 15 days to correct the situation – or face fines of up to $90,000.

When news of the violations broke, people were quick to compare Conway to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In that workplace, 146 New York City garment workers – 120 women and 26 men between the ages of 14 and 39, most of them immigrants – lost their lives because they could not exit the Asch Building; the sweatshop's doors had been bolted shut, barring the workers' from leaving the top three floors of the ten-story structure.

In the 101 years since the Triangle tragedy, similar scenes have periodically played out, keeping the issue of workplace safety on a front burner for both domestic and international activists. In fact, in the United States alone, hazardous conditions are rampant in a host of occupations, including agriculture, construction, cosmetology, food service, health care and manufacturing. That said, it is women of reproductive age – regardless of what they do or where they work – who are hit hardest.

The preamble of the National Research Agenda of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) describes the problem in stark terms:

While more than 1000 workplace chemicals have shown reproductive effects in animals, most have not been studied in humans. In addition, most of the four million other chemical mixtures in commercial use remain untested. Physical and biological agents in the workplace that may affect pregnancy and fertility outcomes are particularly unstudied. The inadequacies of current knowledge, coupled with the ever-growing variety of workplace exposures, pose a potentially serious health problem.

No kidding.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that 75 percent of women in the workforce are of reproductive age. What's more, the CDC acknowledges that they are concerned about a range of problems, including infertility, repeat miscarriages, stillbirths, low-birth-weight babies, and escalating numbers of toddlers diagnosed with pervasive developmental delays.

That these worries are being voiced 42 years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and 36 years after passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act, is shocking, proof that neither piece of legislation has been effective in clipping industry's wings or truly regulating what we eat, drink and breathe.

Let's start with chemical exposure. Women employed as home, hotel or office cleaners, for example, use dozens of chemical-laden products each and every day. According to Alexandra Gorman Scranton, director of science and research at the 16-year-old Missoula, Montana-based Women's Voices for the Earth, solvents and bleaches are particularly nasty and leave workers vulnerable to respiratory and skin ailments. “Disinfectants that are meant to kill germs contain triclosan, which is an endocrine disruptor,” she said. “Other cleaning products contain quaternary ammonium compounds, glycol ethers, 2-butoxyethanol, and fragrances, which are dangerous substances.”

Dangerous indeed. When the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists studied 2-butoxyethanol, they found it to be carcinogenic in animals. Similarly, the Occupational and Environmental Medicine journal has linked glycol ethers to low sperm count. Quaternary ammonium is even more toxic; depending on the concentration, scientists says that it can cause maladies ranging from mild skin irritation to coma or convulsions. It can also kill you.

Scranton next mentions “the toxic trio” – toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phtalates – substances that workers in hair and nail salons routinely ingest. “A lot of studies have been done to demonstrate the respiratory impact of these chemicals,” she continues. “We have been trying to make salon workers aware of the risks of these products and help them connect to one another, salon to salon, worker to worker. Our campaign focuses on teaching staff the symptoms of illnesses and stresses the importance of wearing gloves and masks and improving indoor ventilation systems. We've also put a lot of attention into educating stylists about Brazilian hair straightening. These products contain formaldehyde – even when the packaging says they're formaldehyde free – which can cause coughing, wheezing, eye and nose irritation, and rashes and itchy skin.”

Scared yet? Even if you don't work in any of these occupations, you're not necessarily safe. Farm workers – approximately one-third of whom are female – are routinely exposed to pesticides that have been linked to reproductive difficulties and respiratory illnesses. Then there's health care, where 89 percent of those on the lowest rungs – 3 million nurse's aides, orderlies, home attendants and personal care assistants – are women. According to an article posted by the National Clearinghouse on the Direct Care Workforce in February 2011, not only is pay for these jobs abysmal – the average hourly wage is $9.85 – but workers are also regularly exposed to blood-borne pathogens and subject to muscle injuries from constantly having to lift and move their patients.

Women face another set of problems in female-dominated positions such as sales clerks, sewing machine operators, office staff and service workers. Here they face risks of health problems ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome, to chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain, to stress-related heart disease. Even registered nurses, 91 percent of whom are women, are at risk. Those working with chemotherapy drugs and sterilizing agents, for one, report miscarriage rates that are twice as high as women who don't work with these compounds.

Yet, worrisome as these facts are, the big picture is far scarier, for regardless of industry, what all workplaces have in common is this: wherever women work, we can rest assured that precious little is being done to protect their health and safety – or the health and safety of the children they birth.

It doesn't have to be this way. “All jobs should be designed to be safe and healthy,” Scranton concludes. “We should have occupational health standards that are inherently safe for women of reproductive age, so that dangerous chemicals are not used, but are replaced with safer alternatives. Where that's not possible, women should always be given appropriate safety equipment and proper training to ensure that exposure is prevented.”

Scranton's mission – and the mission of Women's Voices for the Earth – goes beyond these goals, however. “Our vision is a world in which all women have the right to live in a healthy environment, free from toxic chemicals that adversely impact their health and well-being,” she says. Government policies, she continues, should ensure that nothing we consume or handle in our homes or workplaces is contaminated or toxic.

This doesn't seem like a pie-in-the-sky request. Nonetheless, those who aspire to political leadership rarely address these issues. In fact, candidates for public office typically offer hollow hosannas to future generations while ignoring the environmental health crisis facing women who hope to get pregnant and deliver healthy babies. It seems obvious that candidates for both national and local office should be questioned about what concrete actions they will take to create a toxin-free world. Anything less sidesteps one of the most salient pro-life issues of the 21st century.