Pregnant farmers must take extra precautions
Women can do any job on the farm or ranch, but when they’re expecting a baby or planning to become pregnant, it’s wise to take additional safety measures or avoid certain situations.
Knesha Rose-Davison is the public health program director for AgriSafe Network, a nonprofit organization of health professionals and educators in agriculture. She offers safety tips for pregnant women in a free webinar at agrisafe.org.
Reproductive issues go beyond the nine months of pregnancy. “The things you do before, during, and after your pregnancy can have an impact on your future reproductive health cycle,” Rose-Davison says.
Rural women face health disparities compared with their urban counterparts, due in part to a limited number of rural health care providers specializing in women’s health and a lack of access to preventive services.
Everyone faces risk when working around livestock; for women ages 15 to 59, cattle are the most likely cause of injury or death on the farm, Rose-Davison says. Being kicked or crushed are obvious dangers, but pregnant workers must also avoid contact with hormones and zoonotic infections from all livestock.
Two common sources of concern are oxytocin and prostaglandin. “Women have to be very careful to avoid being stuck with a needle while pregnant and working with hormones,” Rose-Davison says.
Oxytocin is administered to cattle and other livestock to induce labor, help with milk letdown, and treat mastitis. Prostaglandin is used to synchronize animals’ reproductive cycles. An accidental needlestick of either can cause loss of pregnancy in humans. Rose-Davison recommends avoiding contact with these injections completely while pregnant.
Pregnancies can also be threatened by exposure to zoonotic infections (those that can be passed between animals and humans) such as brucellosis, Q fever, listeriosis, chlamydiosis, toxoplasmosis, and leptospirosis.
“Women often work with the reproductive cycle of livestock, dealing with mucus and all kinds of fluids that can be a danger if you’re pregnant,” Rose-Davison says.
A female large-animal veterinarian featured in the webinar says, “I stayed away from kidding and lambing and all small ruminants, even if they had a normal pregnancy and no abortions. Q fever can be aerosolized, so I stopped doing small ruminant C-sections while pregnant. Any aborting animal would be a risk.”
Rose-Davison says contact with any fluid, including an animal’s saliva, can pose a risk of infection. “If you’re not working with head-to-toe personal protective equipment, you could be putting yourself and your pregnancy at risk, whether the livestock is having a healthy delivery or aborting,” she says.
In addition to protective equipment, she says washing hands is key to prevention.
Women who are or are planning to become pregnant should also be careful working with or around farm chemicals. Carefully read the manufacturers’ labels and health warnings and consult your doctor before coming into contact with any pesticide, herbicide, or fungicide.
“Be very mindful of anything you’re working with,” she says. “You have a right to access labels if you’re an employee. If you have to use the chemicals, take the time to understand the risks and the safety protocols.”
Carbon monoxide is another threat to avoid. “You can encounter it in livestock buildings and using pressure washers,” Rose-Davison says. “It’s odorless, harmful to the woman, and is a concentrated exposure to an unborn baby.”
It’s also important to monitor your water, especially if it comes from a well and can be susceptible to runoff. “Infants who are fed formula made with well water are at a greater risk for nitrate toxicity, which is the No. 1 cause of blue baby syndrome,” she says. “Make sure your water is safe for your infant.”
Responsibilities and rights
Employers are required by law to inform workers about the implications of exposure to chemicals being used and are forbidden from retaliating against employees who request compliance or file complaints. “OSHA wants to help employers keep employees safe, not just to fine them for infringements,” Rose-Davison says.
“It’s very important to understand what you’re working with and how to protect yourself,” she says. “Read the label and wear appropriate PPE that fits, including gloves, clothing, goggles, and respirators.”
Employers should pay attention to the needs of migrant workers. Nearly one-fourth are women, and their average age is 33.
“Migrant workers move from employer to employer, which means they probably don’t have medical homes, which means their care can be interrupted,” she says. “No matter where you live and what kind of work you do, you have the right to a safe and healthy pregnancy and proper safety information for the work that you do.”
Visit agrisafe.org for more in-depth information on this and other health and safety topics. Webinars, printable signs, and other resources are free with registration.
To file a complaint with OSHA, call 800/321-6742 or visit osha.gov/whistleblower/WBComplaint.