Psychosocial risks during pregnancy: how to prevent them?

By Francisco Javier García González, Valora Prevencion

A vulnerable type of workers

Pregnant workers are included in the broader category of vulnerable workers (or group of high-risk workers) who require superior occupational risk prevention[1] protection. With the current further aggravation of the pandemic, special attention needs to be paid to this group. It is of paramount importance not to forget to address occupational risk factors that may be harmful to the mother or fetus’s health.

New occupational risks for pregnancy

The SEGO Guide (Spanish Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics), in its third edition, includes a new section about occupational risks for pregnancy, with some guidelines on how to act in these situations, among which it contemplates exposure to psychosocial risks.

Exposure to various psychosocial factors can generate very different physiological, emotional, cognitive or behavioural responses for each worker. Therefore, it is necessary each time a set of risk factors is considered, to assess and quantify the intensity, frequency, and duration of the risk(s) on the health and well-being of pregnant workers. In other words, a psychosocial factor will be considered as such to the extent that it significantly affects the well-being of these workers, or when there is an unbalanced relationship with the job or the work environment.

Therefore, it is recommended to first assess the likelihood of changing technical or organisational conditions that may entail such risks to protect pregnant workers and their babies’ health. One possible strategy concern providing a more suitable working environment if the working conditions or working hours cannot be modified because of such risks. It is also vital to adapt to the job or tasks to make them compatible with pregnancy and/or breastfeeding.

However, this transition is not always easy to manage as the incidence depends directly on both the individual’s tolerance and the complexity of quantifying the event’s extent: the same factor may be stressful for one worker and easily manageable for another.

A new guide edited to address occupational risks in pregnancy

The Spanish Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, in its Guide, explains what the occupational risks for pregnancy are:

  • Stress. It is not a risk factor per se, but an effect of exposure to specific working conditions. The origin may lie in psychosocial risk factors such as work organisation and environment and other physical agents such as noise, vibration, high temperatures, and/or personal, family and social aspects.
  • Working time. It can be related to either excessive working time, lack of or inadequate breaks or disconnections from remote work, causing fatigue to appear as a first consequence. More attention should be given to pregnant workers working in shifts or at night. In these cases, it is recommended that pregnant workers switch to daytime and fixed shifts. Guideline 92/85 for pregnant workers stresses the need to take the necessary measures to minimise night work and therefore calls for the organisation of working time to be considered as far as possible.
  • Working in isolation. Working alone or in an isolated area is discouraged because of the difficulty of asking for and receiving help.
  • Abdominal trauma. The risks of blows to the abdomen should be taken into special consideration especially in jobs whose work includes ensuring safety, for example in state security forces, military or security guards, prison guards, psychiatric units, or child care in supervised centres.

The occupational safety prevention technician and the occupational physician’s joint work in identifying and assessing these psychosocial factors to avoid or minimise exposure in the pregnant worker are therefore essential, with the opportunity to recommend appropriate countermeasures to be taken by the employer.

How to prevent psychosocial risk factors in pregnant workers?

In conclusion, the first thing an organisation should do is to identify the risk factors that may affect the health of the mother or the baby, identify those tasks or work areas that do not present a risk to the pregnant worker, and adopt the following preventive recommendations:

  • Avoid night or rotating shifts, and if this is not possible, schedule shift changes as far in advance as possible. Also, avoid jobs where pregnant workers are alone. Work shifts should never be longer than 5 days in a row.
  • Adapt the work to the pregnant woman’s new conditions or exempt her from performing those tasks related to her job that may be harmful (e.g., abdominal trauma).
  • Minimising long working hours and/or continuous shifts.
  • Adjust the volume and demand for work so that the woman can comfortably regulate her breaks.
  • Where possible, promote teleworking and flexible working hours.
  • Establish consensual measures that facilitate and promote the work-family life balance.
  • Develop protocols to ensure fair and non-discriminatory treatment of pregnant workers.
  • Train and inform on existing risks and preventive measures.

[1] Article 26 of Law 31/1995 on Occupational Risk Prevention