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Risks to pregnant women at work “small but consistent”

5 February 2009

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A precautionary approach should be taken to reduce long hours and physical labour for pregnant women at work, according to a new guideline from the Royal College of Physician’s Occupational Health Clinical Effectiveness Unit (OHCEU).

It says there are small but consistent risks to pregnant women who undertake manual handling, prolonged standing and long working hours as part of their daily working lives.

The OHCEU’s Guideline Development Group reviewed relevant literature to help answer key questions about the risk of adverse outcomes to expectant mothers in specific working conditions.

The new guideline leads the way for further research into the level of exposure at which adjustments for expectant mothers should be made and the stage of pregnancy at which they should be implemented.

The group also considered the effect of undertaking shift work. While further evidence here is also needed, it found no evidence to suggest this would lead to a high risk of adverse outcomes for pregnant women.

None of the evidence assessed by the OHCEU was sufficiently strong to justify mandatory exclusion of pregnant women from work for any of the exposures considered.

Dr Sian Williams, Clinical Director of the OHCEU, said: “This guideline brings together the findings of published, high-quality research on specific risks to pregnant women in the workplace. It should be of particular relevance to the healthcare industry, where women make up more than 70% of the workforce, many are of childbearing age, and work often involves long shifts, prolonged standing and manual work.

“The guideline development group found very little evidence to answer the questions about what duration of shift and standing, and what amount of manual handling, leads to increased risk. We encourage researchers to try to answer these important questions.”

Dr Ira Madan, Director of Clinical Standards at NHS Plus, said: “The guideline will assist occupational health practitioners in advising pregnant employees on their fitness to continue with their duties at work. It will also inform employers who have a statutory duty to undertake a risk assessment of the working conditions of pregnant employees.

“The guidelines deliberately take a precautionary stance, while acknowledging that many pregnant women undertake manual handling and prolonged standing at home.”

Royal College of Physicians