Amy Ney is a chemist. And a mother. But the two roles occasionally conflict. "During my first pregnancy, I had to inventory and dispose of my predecessor's 20-year chemical collection," says Ney, who teaches chemistry at a U.S. high school and acts as the chemical hygiene officer for the department. "Everyone said it was one of the biggest chemical messes they had seen with radioactive materials, formaldehyde, explosives, and improperly stored chemicals," Ney tells Next Wave. But even though she was regularly exposed to carcinogens, heavy metals, and radioactive materials, the school provided no safety equipment. "Not even gloves," says Ney.
Silvia Jurisson, an associate professor of chemistry at Missouri University, had two children while conducting research in radiopharmaceuticals and radioenvironmental chemistry. "I work with metals (both radioactive and nonradioactive) to develop compounds for diagnosing or treating various diseases and other compounds used in detecting or removing radioactive compounds from the environment," says Jurisson. To protect her unborn baby, she wore a special low exposure radiation badge on her tummy while pregnant and minimised her exposure to x-rays and gamma rays, as well as avoiding volatile solvents.
These two women's stories share a common theme. Although both women gave birth to healthy babies, they carried almost full responsibility for protecting their own health. And several other women contacted by Next Wave made the same point: Much of the responsibility for ensuring you have a safe pregnancy rests with you. "I have learned to be very careful in the laboratory regarding personal protection and prevention of contamination," Jurisson explains. "Being pregnant just adds an additional level of care in the work environment."
Women who act to protect their health have the law on their side. Employers are specifically required to take account of health and safety risks to new and expectant mothers when assessing risks in work activity. According to Department of Trade and Industry regulations, if the risk cannot be avoided, then the employer has to find suitable, alternative work on the same terms and conditions. If there is no safe alternative job, an employer can suspend a pregnant woman on full pay to protect her health and safety. Sex discrimination laws prevent dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy or childbirth.
But communication is critical. Under European Union regulations, a woman is obliged to tell her employer she is pregnant "as soon as possible" so precautions can be put in place. Laboratory hazards and how they should be handled are listed in the regulations such as carcinogenic and teratogenic substances, mercury and its compounds, cytotoxic chemicals, carbon monoxide, lead and its derivatives, and materials that can be absorbed through the skin. Employers have to do a strict risk assessment for pregnant women working with such materials and pay particular attention to potential harm to the unborn child. And according to a spokesperson for the Royal Society of Chemistry, "Any assessments should be kept under review as the possibility of damage to the fetus will vary at different stages of pregnancy."
Maternity leave is also available for researchers at all levels. According to Alison Webber, policy support officer at the Natural Environmental Research Council, NERC will allow up to 4 months paid maternity leave for female research students, without the level of stipend being abated. She points out that support for any extra time can sometimes be obtained from a host institution's Access Fund and normally, she says, things run smoothly. Natasha Martineau of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council says its maternity rules follow similar principles.