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Reproductive Hazards in the Small Business Workplace: A Safety and Health Management Dilemma

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Small business employers have both a legal and an ethical responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees. Perhaps nowhere is this responsibility more poignant than in the area of reproductive health. Approximately 25 million workers are exposed to one or more chemical hazards. Reproductive hazards in the workplace pose serious potential liability problems for small businesses, particularly in industries where exposure to toxic chemical hazards is an essential part of the production process. This article examines the nature and extent of toxic reproductive exposure in the workplace, discusses the key legal requirements concerning reproductive hazards, and identifies strategies for the risk management of those hazards in the small business.

INTRODUCTION

Employers have both a legal and an ethical responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees. Perhaps nowhere is this responsibility more poignant than in the area of reproductive health. Approximately 25 million workers - about one in four in the nation's work force - are exposed to one or more chemical hazards. Currently, there are an estimated 575,000 known chemical products. With hundreds of new chemicals being introduced annually, more and more employees are being exposed to potentially harmful substances. Reproductive hazards in the workplace pose serious problems for employers and employees, particularly in industries where exposure to toxic chemical hazards is an essential part of the production process. The recent Supreme Court decision in Johnson Controls (1991) indicates the pervasiveness and seriousness of chemicals in the workplace.

The modern workplace, with its rapidly changing technologies, is replete with thousands of actual or potential toxic chemicals and substances. Some hazards are clearly known, such as lead and mercury; others are suspected, like vinyl chloride. For many man-made chemicals and substances, potential toxic hazards are still unknown; they often do not make themselves known for many years, as in the case of asbestos. Chemical exposure may cause or contribute to many serious health problems such as heart ailments, kidney and lung damage, sterility, cancer, burns and rashes. Of the 28,000 toxic substances listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), fifty-six are known animal mutagens which cause chromosomal damage to either the ova or the sperm cells, and 471 are known animal teratogens which cause damage to the fetus (Molander, 1980).

The small business owner needs to be aware of the risks associated with reproductive hazards in the workplace and to take measures preventing possible harm to the reproductive capabilities of his/her employees. Given the recent Johnson Controls decision, small businesses that fail to minimize or eliminate reproductive hazards could face enormous potential liability which could devastate the firm. This article has three purposes: first, to examine the nature and extent of toxic reproductive exposure in the workplace; second, to discuss the key legal requirements concerning reproductive hazards in the workplace; and third, to identify strategies for the risk management of reproductive hazards.

NATURE AND EXTENT OF TOXIC EXPOSURE

The Subcommittee on Reproductive and Neurodevelopmental Toxicology reports that approximately 250,000 babies are born with birth defects each year in the United States. Twenty percent of those birth defects are attributed to multiple causes, 15% to intrauterine infections, 5% to a mutant gene, 2-3% to environmental factors, and 60% to unknown causes, of which environmental exposure might be a contributory factor. The Subcommittee further reports that for every 3,000,000 U.S. births annually, at least 600,000 embryos or fetuses are aborted spontaneously before the 20th week, and some 24,000 fetuses die before birth. Of live births4 nearly 8% are premature, approximately 7% have low birth weight, and another 3-7% possess some type of malformation (Subcommittee on Reproductive and Neurodevelopmental Toxicology, 1989). …