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Creating a Safe Workspace for Pregnant Workers

Monday, December 22, 2008
By Anne Kramer

For most pregnant women, the primary concern at work is exposure to harmful chemicals. Often overlooked are ergonomic needs, which change as a woman’s pregnancy progresses. Because a pregnant woman’s body is constantly changing shape, ergonomic adjustments should be made continuously.

A protruding abdomen is hardly the only physiological transformation during pregnancy. All aspects of a woman’s body are altered, making injuries from repetitive stress and poor posture more common. It is important to address all the different ergonomic needs of pregnant employees.

  • Hormonal changes decrease the elasticity of the ligaments, making it easier to strain or pull them.

  • Joints in the spine grow less stable as they shift and separate. The back is therefore less capable of supporting weight, and range of motion is more limited.

  • The shape of the spine itself grows more curved, which often causes discomfort in the shoulders and lower back.

  • Reaching distance increases to accommodate a growing belly, putting a greater strain on the shoulders, arms, and lower back during lifting and maneuvering.

  • Increased fluid in the joints places stress on all the joints and their nerves, particularly the median nerve in the wrist, a condition that increases pregnant women at greater risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
While most employers are conscientious about their pregnant employees’ need to avoid standing for long periods of time, repetitive lifting, and working long hours without a break, they tend to ignore other, more specific ergonomic needs. These are just as critical to employee health, and many of them are workplace adaptations that should be available to all employees, not just pregnant ones.

  • Tasks should be arranged to minimize twisting the body and stress on ligaments. For instance, a document holder placed next to the monitor reduces turning of the head and neck, protecting against straining these muscles and ligaments.

  • To safeguard the integrity of the spine, lifting should be kept to items under ten pounds. Furthermore, pregnant women should not pick up items from the floor, as this places exponentially greater stress on a pregnant woman’s body than a non-pregnant employee’s body.

  • Adjustable office chairs provide continual, adaptable support. A lumbar cushion can be added, and can be particularly useful during the last trimester, when the spine’s curvature is the most extreme.

  • Work surfaces with adjustable height can be modified to minimize reaching distance; as the abdomen grows larger, the desk can be raised to accommodate it.

  • To reduce the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, the position and height of the keyboard may be modified. Using a wrist rest is also a simple, but critical, practice.

Although the pregnant employee may face greater ergonomic challenges in the workplaces, modifications are relatively easy and will benefit not only those who are pregnant, but also all employees. Adapting the office to fit the physiology of each worker, through the implementation of the appropriate equipment, will protect the health and safety of the whole office.

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