Potential Impact of Occupational Chemicals and Physical Hazards on Reproduction-August 2022

It has been recognized that exposure to certain chemicals during fetal development  may increase the risk of negative health consequences, including adverse birth outcomes, childhood morbidity and adult disease and mortality. In addition, work-related and environmental risk factors may also reduce fertility.

OSHA has recognized these outcomes and has included preventative measures in some standards such as those for lead, ionizing radiation, 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane, and ethylene oxide. Employers are required to protect workers from inorganic lead exposure under OSHA lead standards covering general industry (1910.1025), shipyards (1915.1025), and construction (1926.62). Pregnant women or those who might become pregnant must avoid lead exposure and employers must provide voluntary transfers to areas where hazardous levels of lead are not present. 

According to scientific literature, occupational exposure may directly affect the outcome of pregnancy, “such as spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, pre-term birth, small-for-gestational age and birth weight”. It may also interact with fetal development, resulting in health effects in the offspring that range from congenital birth defects, neurobehavioral disorders at young age and even cancer in older age.

Among agricultural workers who are exposed to pesticides, studies have found increased risk for birth defects, altered fetal growth, and fetal death. Chromosome damage was also found in several studies. Among  health care workers, exposure to ionizing radiation both before or during pregnancy, has been associated with spontaneous abortion and congenital defects. Exposure to  anesthetic gases and antineoplastic drugs, and various other chemical agents may also result in spontaneous abortion and low birth weight, most notably exposure to heavy metals (inorganic lead and mercury), pesticides and organic solvents. 

Despite some as yet unknown results in the scientific literature, it is advisable to limit exposure to physical and chemical agents where a link to reproductive issues have been identified and to advise against exposure for adults of reproductive age.

Employers should:

  • Review chemicals and physical factors that have been linked to reproductive health issues.
  • Check and maintain systems that control these hazards.
  • Train and educate employees about the chemicals and physical hazard that may affect reproduction.
  • Provide the opportunity to those of reproductive age to transfer to areas where reproductive hazards are not present or greatly reduced.

Qualitative summary of the potentially adverse effects of occupational exposure on the female and male reproductive system

Occupational risk factor Pregnancy outcomes (maternal exposure) Birth defects (maternal exposure) Semen quality (paternal exposure) 
Physical factors    
    Ionizing radiation Spontaneous abortion Congenital defects Reduced sperm count Azoospermia 
    Noise (>90 dBA) Spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, pre-term birth   
    Heat   Reduced sperm count 
Chemical agents    
    Lead Low birth weight Neural tube defects Reduced sperm count 
    Mercury Spontaneous abortion   
    Organic solvents Spontaneous abortion   
    Tetrachloroethylene Spontaneous abortion Cleft lip/palate  
    Glycol ethers Spontaneous abortion  Reduced semen quality 
    Dibromopropane Menstrual disturbances, spontaneous abortion Neural tube defects Reduced semen quality 
    Ethylene oxide Pre-term birth, spontaneous abortion Cleft lip/palate  
    Anesthetic gases Spontaneous abortion   
    Antineoplastic drugs Spontaneous abortion   
    Pesticides   Reduced sperm count Azoospermia 
    Ethylene dibromide  Neural tube defects, cleft lip/palate Reduced quantity and quality 
    Carbon sulfide   Reduced quantity and quality 
    Specific types of      welding   Reduced quantity and quality 
Psychosocial factors    
    Irregular work hours Spontaneous abortion, menstrual disturbances   
    Stress Spontaneous abortion, pre-term birth   
Physical load    
    Heavy physical work (high energy expenditure) Spontaneous abortion, low birth weight   
    Frequent heavy lifting Pre-term birth, spontaneous abortion   
    Prolonged standing Low birth weight, pre-term birth, spontaneous abortion   

For more information on this topic and to discuss your company’s safety and industrial hygiene needs call OccuSafe at (214) 662-6005 or visit us at www.occusafeinc.com.This newsletter is published monthly by OccuSafe Industrial Hygiene & Safety Services, Inc. Feel free to forward it to friends and colleagues or see past newsletters at occusafeinc.com/category/newsletter/

OccuSafe Industrial Hygiene & Safety, Inc. provides skills and expertise to recognize, evaluate and control hazards and injuries in the areas of industrial hygiene, occupational safety and health. OccuSafe services companies of all sizes in a range of industries.

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