A growing body of research evidence suggests pregnant welders exposed to common welding hazards are at risk of suffering adverse pregnancy outcomes including fetal loss.
This most recent Canadian study, published in the November 2022 issue of the journal Annals of Work Exposures and Health
, evaluates the impacts of welding fumes and work design and demand hazards
(called ergonomic exposures by the authors) on pregnancy outcomes of women welders.
The researchers suggest multiple hazards may be in play, citing previous studies implicating metals and particles in welding fume with adverse pregnancy outcomes. They further propose, “There are also substantial ergonomic demands
, from the welding itself, grinding tasks, the manipulation of heavy components and the body postures needed to reach parts to be welded, as well as environmental factors such as heat and noise.”
Of course, many of these ergonomic demands are common to several work settings
The researchers recruited Canadian apprentices entering welding trades at ages they were likely to conceive. Their work, exposures, health and pregnancy status were documented for up to five years between January 2011 and August 2018.
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Risk to fetus
A total of 122 pregnancies were analysed with 91 resulting in live births and 31 in fetal loss. Key findings showed risk of fetal loss increased because of manipulating heavy objects, whole-body vibration, and noise exposure. Gestation decreased with perceived heat intensity and birth weight was lower in those exposed to whole-body vibration. Adverse pregnancy outcomes were also linked with exposure to welding fumes though the study was unable to show an independent effect.
It is important to note, exposure to welding fumes is associated with other health impacts including chronic lung disease and cancer. In fact, welding fumes are recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a human carcinogen.
In summarizing the findings, the researchers explain, “We do not conclude from this study that the welding environment is safe for the fetus should a welder become pregnant, but rather that it is ergonomics factors that present the greatest risk, and the most urgent need for intervention.”
In Ontario, health and safety law places significant obligations on employers to protect workers. This includes a general duty to identify, assess and control or eliminate exposure to all hazards including those placing the health of pregnant women and fetus at risk. Further, the Occupational Health and Safety Act speaks to their obligation to take reasonable precautions. To this end, the Canadian researchers suggest considering vibration arose mainly from using grinding tools that, “Avoidance of such tasks would seem a reasonable precaution for pregnant welders.”
Further to this point, limited reassignment protection under occupational health and safety law is in place in Quebec and for workers under federal jurisdiction (Part II and Division VII, Part III, Canada Labour Code). Here in Ontario, some protection is afforded under human rights provisions giving pregnant workers the right to request changes to job duties or rules. Employers must accommodate these requests, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Although it should be noted, the Human Rights Commission charged with enforcing these provisions look at each case and will determine any action based on its own merit.
Workplaces might consider reviewing policies and practices to ensure accommodation options are available when requested.
The authors of this recent study also suggest, “Ergonomic interventions to reduce workplace hazards would improve conditions for pregnant welders.” These interventions involve designing work and work processes to meet the physical and (mental needs) of all workers regardless of gender and certainly must consider the needs of pregnant workers. While these efforts are critical for aiding healthy pregnancies, they are also essential to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), also known as repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) in all sectors. In fact, MSDs account for approximately one-third of lost time injuries (LTIs) allowed by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board WSIB — the single largest class of compensation claims.
Employers are also legally mandated to provide information, instruction and training to protect the health and safety of workers including reproductive health and ergonomics awareness, safe work procedures along with processes to report hazards.
WHSC can help
All WHSC ergonomics programs focus on the knowledge and tools needed to help identify work design and demand hazards. What’s more, this training offers essential insight into prevention solutions. As such, this training is essential for joint health and safety committee members, worker representatives, workers, employers and supervisors, all of whom have a critical role
in identifying, assessing and recommending or implementing preventive solutions.
For the month of February, two of the more popular WHSC ergonomics programs are specially priced at just $20 per participant
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