Take a minute to watch this commercial from 1949:
Amazing, isn’t it? People at that time knew very little about the hazardous chemicals they were putting in their bodies. It was no different in the workplace, people often worked around unsafe substances such as lead paint and asbestos, unaware of the health risks that come with exposure to these materials.
We’ve come a long way in the past few decades as we’ve learned more about chemical exposures, but as science and technology continue to advance, new dangerous chemicals are being developed that people work with or near every day and we still don’t know much about their effects. Thankfully, injuries and illnesses from chemical exposures are not all that common these days, but we must remain vigilant in our efforts to minimize the potential for negative health outcomes, whether immediate or long-term, to occur.
When we think about chemical exposures at work, our minds generally go to scenes of an employee breathing in a noxious gas from a leak which destroys their nervous system within seconds, or of someone developing cancer after working around a hazardous substance for decades. But there is another health and safety risk from chemical exposures that you may not know about - reproductive hazards.
Reproductive hazards are substances or agents that may affect the reproductive health of women or men or the ability of couples to have healthy children, causing problems such as infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects. Hazard exposure usually occurs through inhalation, skin contact, and ingestion. However, there are other ways employees can be exposed to reproductive hazards, such as physical hazards (e.g., radiation), and biological hazards (e.g., certain viruses), but these are less common, other than in the healthcare industry.
Do we really know which workplace chemicals can have reproductive effects and what those effects may be? The answer is a strong no. Researchers have found over 1,000 chemicals used in the workplace to have reproductive effects in animals, but most of these have not been studied in humans. Furthermore, over 4 million chemical mixtures in commercial use have been completely untested for potential effects. Also notably, OSHA reports that the physical and biological agents that may affect our reproductive systems are ‘practically unstudied.’
Acknowledging that much more work needs to be done, OSHA does have standards in place for several hazardous chemicals such as ethylene oxide, anesthetic gasses, and lead. In addition, OSHA promotes a hierarchy of controls for hazardous chemicals developed by the Washington state Department of Labor, which they define as “a ranking of methods that can be used in the workplace to prevent or minimize worker exposures – from the most effective to the least effective.” Considering chemical exposures in terms of a source of hazardous material and the pathway by which said material travels to the employee, exposures can be controlled by:
- Eliminating the source (e.g., using a different product/chemical)
- Capturing the contaminant along the pathway (e.g., engineering controls to contain the chemical)
- Preventing exposure at the worker (e.g., wearing appropriate PPE)
Beyond these existing measures, we recommend that safety leaders make the effort to gather as much information as possible on the chemicals used at their work sites and share this information with their employees, particularly those who are most vulnerable to exposures. Because we don’t know all of the potential negative outcomes for reproduction that the chemicals we work with can have, employees must take every available step to protect themselves around hazardous chemicals. Employees should engage in strong safety behaviors such as following all safety procedures while working with or near chemicals, wearing PPE to prevent contact, and knowing the emergency procedures for exiting an area should a chemical be released by accident.
Although these precautions are most relevant for younger employees who may not yet have children or want more, even older employees should follow these guidelines because chemical exposures can result in a variety of negative health and safety outcomes. Not all workplace injuries and illnesses occur instantly, the long-term effects of exposures around the workplace can impact your future. If you’re planning on having children and want to reduce the potential for complications, be sure to minimize your contact with the chemicals you work around as much as possible.