Making Ergonomic Accommodations for the Pregnant Worker

When it comes to ergonomics, pregnant women require more attention than the average worker to account for conditions caused or exacerbated by pregnancy.

Most companies today have established ergonomics programs and strive to offer a comfortable, safe work environment for all employees. In doing so, they typically provide adjustable workstations that are flexible enough to accomodate the smallest to the largest workers, and in most cases, these workstations do the job -- until a worker becomes pregnant.

Linda Tapp, primary consultant at Crown Safety, told attendees at the Safety 2001 conference and exposition in Anaheim, Calif. on Tuesday, that when it comes to ergonomics, pregnant women require more attention than the average worker to account for conditions caused or exacerbated by pregnancy.

Pregnancy alters the body's shape, and thus, its interaction with the workspace, Tapp said. As pregnancy progresses, a woman must lift and maneuver items further away from her body. This means that prior to the pregnancy a woman working in a manufacturing environment might have to reach 15 inches to her workstation. But to accomodate her growing abdomen, the same woman in her thrid trimester of pregnancy might have to reach 20 inches or more to access the same workstation.

Also complicating matters is the fact that a woman's growing abdomen alters her center of gravity, which inevitably increases her chances of falling. Tapp noted that as a woman's body becomes increasingly larger, progressive postural problems, backache are the result, along with the impairment of her dexterity, agility, coordination and balance.

"Pregnancy affects balance, lifting tasks, reach distance and can also cause repetitive motion industries," Tapp said. "Some research also suggests a link between ergonomic stressors and adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm delivery, spontaneous abortion, low birth weight and stillbirths. Several studies have also found an increased risk of preterm delivery among women whose jobs involve a combination of stressful factors, such as standing for long durations, repetitive lifting and working long hours."

To account for these changes, Tapp recommended employers make an increased effort to account for the ergonomic needs of pregnant women. Seeing as each pregnancy is different, however, employers make sure to address each individual's needs and circumstances and all aspects of the job when it comes to making workplace modifications.

Tapp recommends employers take the following preventive steps to protect pregnant employees on the job:

  • Assign less physical tasks
  • Restrict lifting to 25 pounds or less
  • Adjust work (flexible scheduling, day shift rather than night shifts, etc.)
  • Vary tasks to avoid static posture
  • Adjust height of work surfaces and chairs
  • Install foot rests
  • Limit standing to less than three hours per day
  • Offer shorter, more frequent breaks
  • Reduce the amount of work performed at heights
  • Provide more space for moving around
  • Remove obstacles in the work area, particularly those placed at lower levels
  • Promote safe lifting techniques.

by Melissa Martin

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