Work Matters: Step 5 - Prevent Harmful Exposures
Completely avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals is the best way to protect your health. Most workplace chemicals have not been tested for reproductive and developmental health effects and therefore, you cannot rely on legal limits as an assurance of protection. However, if you cannot avoid chemical exposure all together, there are a variety of ways to keep exposure as low as possible.
To eliminate or reduce your exposure, you can:
- Learn what is known about chemicals on the job.
- Request that your employer use safer alternatives to toxic chemicals.
- Follow health and safety procedures.
- Find out about “accommodations”. Accommodations are changes your employer makes to meet your needs while pregnant or nursing/breastfeeding.
There are many effective and safer alternatives to toxic chemicals, and more are being developed every day. Safer alternatives often use soy, water, mechanical methods, or less hazardous chemicals to end or reduce exposure to toxic chemicals. Safer alternatives can help you stay in the same position while still preventing harmful exposures. They can also be cost-effective for your employer, especially given the cost of handling and disposing of toxic substances. Additional resources can be found here.
If you cannot use a safer alternative, carefully follow guidelines for using toxic chemicals.
- Use as little of any toxic chemical as possible.
- Use the protective equipment your employer provides.
- Follow guidelines for ventilation.
- Keep containers closed to prevent spills and minimize evaporation.
If exposure to toxic chemicals would endanger you or your pregnancy, you may have a right to accommodations. For example, you may have a right to request a change in your duties or assignments, transfer to another position, or unpaid leave under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act or Family and the Medical Leave Act.
In general, there is no right to temporary paid leave under federal law, and pregnant women do not usually qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
If you work in California you may also have a right to paid leave under California law or if your employer provides paid leave to other temporarily disabled employees. More information for California workers is at:
You must provide your employer with appropriate notice of any request for accommodation. The relevant law will tell you exactly what to do, but in general you should provide notice as soon as possible and follow your employer’s notice procedures. In the case that your employer requests medical documentation of the need for accommodation ask your health care provider for a note or letter. (Learn more about the role of your personal health care provider here.)
If you are worried about possible discrimination or retaliation, request one or more of your co-workers or union steward to join you to ask questions and document the response.
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