This information sheet talks about harmful exposures that may be present in some work settings and offers guidance on how to reduce some of these exposures. With each pregnancy, all women have a 3% to 5% chance of having a baby with a birth defect. This information should not take the place of medical care and advice from your health care provider.

What types of hazards could be in a workplace?

This fact sheet highlights chemicals and metals; however, there are many types of workplace hazards. Other workplace hazards include: anesthetic gases, ionizing radiation, loud noise, extreme heat or extreme cold stress, strenuous physical exertion, repetitive movements, whole body vibration, infectious agents, injury, emotional stress and changing shift rotations.

Sometimes, workers carry hazardous substances (dust, powder, chemicals, metal flakes) home on their shoes or clothing. Because of this, it is also important talk to your partner or other adults living in your home about their workplace hazards.

In general, exposures can happen through: inhaling substances (breathing a gas, powder, dust or vapor into your lungs), absorption through skin, or ingestion (eating or drinking).

How can workplace exposures affect my health?

For many possible workplace exposures, studies have not been done to see how they might affect a person’s fertility or pregnancy. However, workplace exposures might affect other areas of health, such as: asthma, allergic reactions or cancer. For this reason, it is appropriate for all workers to safeguard their health in the workplace, even if they are not pregnant. Men should also follow proper safety procedures to protect their health.

How can I learn more about chemicals in my workplace?

The best way to find out what chemicals are in the product(s) you use, or products that are used around you, is to get a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheets for that product, called MSDS for short. The workplace is required to make sure that MSDS are readily available to workers for all chemicals used at a worksite. The MSDS describe how to properly handle and store chemicals used at your workplace. However, most MSDS do not provide helpful information about reproductive risks, because the sheets do not put risks in the context of the amount of exposure.

It is helpful to remember that even though a potentially harmful substance or condition may be present at your worksite, it does not mean that you are at risk for exposure. In addition, smelling an odor does not mean you have had a significant exposure. By following proper safety and handling procedures, exposures will likely be kept below levels that would affect your health or pregnancy.

How can I reduce my exposure to potential hazards in my workplace?

Consider talking with an occupational health specialist or industrial hygienist who may be able to provide information that is specific to your workplace.

Employers are responsible for making sure the workplace is safe for all workers. If there are concerns about safety at work, you may consider discussing the following with your workplace:

  • Substitution: Is there a safer chemical that can be substituted for the one of concern?
  • Local Exhaust: Can a local exhaust be used to reduce exposure? (e.g. fume hoods)

In addition, some good basic protective measures for any worker are outlined below:

  • If eating at the workplace: (a) Don’t eat or drink at a work station. Eat only in designated eating areas; (b) Wash your hands well before you eat or drink; and (c) Store your food and drinks in a refrigerator that is only for food.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. Do not smoke at work. If you do smoke, wash your hands before and after having a cigarette to prevent breathing in or swallowing chemicals that you might have on your hands.
  • If you are exposed to dust or powders at work, consider having another set of clothes and shoes that can stay at work. This way, you can wear clean clothes and shoes home. Ask if your employer can provide work clothing that can be laundered at the worksite. If you must bring your work clothes home to be washed, keep them separate from your family’s laundry.
  • If your job requires you to sit or stand for long periods of time, take regular short breaks of about 5-10 minutes every 2 hours. Change your position by sitting or taking a walk.
  • Make sure that harmful waste or trash is disposed of properly in containers with lids. Make sure the lids are tightly closed on the containers when not in use.
  • If there is a chemical spill or leak, follow the proper safety procedures, as outlined by your employer and the MSDS, to clean the area.

What kind of safety protection can be used?

All work places should provide the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for handling and working around hazardous situations. Some examples of protective equipment include gloves, shoes, aprons, gowns, ear protection, hoods, or masks.

  • Use what is available and required for your job.
  • Use protective equipment at all times, not just when pregnant.
  • Keep your training on how to properly use the PPE up to date.
  • Make sure hoods, respirators, and other equipment are working properly.
  • If you wear protective equipment (such as a respirator), be sure it fits correctly. As a woman’s body changes during pregnancy, protective equipment may need to be re-fitted.
  • If you wear a respirator, remember that respirators are not a substitute for appropriate permanent exhaust ventilation (such as fume hoods, exhaust ducts and/or exhaust fans). Respirators are designed to be used only for a short period of time.
  • If the right protective equipment is not currently at your worksite, ask your employer about getting it.

What if I am feeling sick while at work?

If you are having health problems, or health problems become worse while at your work place, tell your health care provider.

You and your employer can consult with an industrial hygienist, who can make sure that the proper protective equipment is in place and is working properly.

What should I tell my health care provider about my workplace?

When preparing to discuss your concerns about workplace exposures with your health care provider, a MotherToBaby expert, or an industrial hygienist, gathering some information ahead of time will be helpful. Have a list of the chemicals that you work with or are around. Bring a copy of the product label and MSDS, if possible. Write down how you work with the exposure of concern, the amount of time you work with it, and how you protect yourself.

In addition, discuss what your typical day at work is like, and if you have a changing shift schedule. Describe duties such as heavy lifting, or if you may be around radiation or loud noises. Don’t forget to discuss all of your jobs if you have more than one job. Also think about hobbies, such as art or jewelry making, which could lead to exposure to hazards.

What if I’m still breastfeeding when I go back to work?

If you need to pump and store milk at your workplace, use a clean room to pump. Always wash your hands prior to handing your breast pump equipment and milk storage containers. If you are using a work refrigerator to store the expressed milk, make sure it is one that is only for workers to store their food. Continue to follow safe work practices to reduce exposure to potential hazards. If you have concerns about breastfeeding, talk to your healthcare provider.

Where can I get more information?

Call the MotherToBaby toll-free national line at 1-866-626-6847 to find a service that may be able to provide you with information. You can also contact an industrial hygienist or occupational medicine specialist outside your place of employment; try looking for them at a local medical university. Industrial hygienists should be able to provide an independent assessment on ways to improve the safety of your job, if needed, and may be able to give advice on how to work with employers in implementing these changes. If you need to find a MSDS, most are available through the internet. If you do not have access to the internet, try your local library for internet access.

If you are a member of a union or professional organization, you may consider talking with them or directly to your employer. Within these groups, there may already be negotiated rules for pregnant women that may be different than those set by the government. These negotiated rules for pregnant women may not be based on any known risks, but they may be stricter because of the process of previous negotiations.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a free service called Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE), which can provide you or your employer advice about health hazards that might be in your workplace and can offer tips on how to make your workplace safer. To learn more, visit the NIOSH website at: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/.

Below is a list of other resources that may be helpful: