Accommodating Pregnant Employees in Potentially Risky Work Spaces

We have a pregnant employee working in the plant where there are a lot of chemical exposures. Her doctor has not restricted or limited her work duties, but we are concerned about her exposure to these chemicals. What are our options?

First, make sure her doctor is fully aware of the issues in the plant. For example, write up a detailed job description noting the possibility of exposure to chemicals, including which chemicals precisely and how often the exposure is likely to occur.

Notify the Doctor

Many chemicals in the workplace haven’t been tested for their impact on reproductive problems and infants in the womb. A good idea would be to provide the doctor with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for all chemicals in the workplace.

All manufacturers must provide these when there are toxic chemicals, and the sheets include detailed information on the chemicals that could be reviewed by her doctor.

Keep in mind that the employee may be less than candid with her doctor if she needs the income—disability pay is significantly less than the regular wage rate.

Reassign Duties

Exposure to chemicals is only one possible risk for a pregnant employee working in a plant. As the woman becomes more advanced in her pregnancy, she may be more cumbersome and unable to get out the way of machinery and forklifts.

If only one part of the employee’s job is risky/hazardous, reassign those duties to a nonpregnant worker. This isn’t always possible, but remember the easy answers.

Another solution is to reassign the employee to a completely different job with minimal risks/hazards. Employers frequently state, “Oh, but we have nowhere to move her to.” But a closer examination might reveal tasks the employee can perform out of harm’s way.

Pregnancy Disability Leave

Finally, it may prove impossible to accommodate any restrictions the doctor proposes, and if it’s early in the pregnancy, she may need more than 4 months of pregnancy disability leave (PDL).

The PDL laws were amended a few years ago such that employers should provide more than the 4 months noted in the law as a reasonable accommodation. The decision to take an employee off work due to concerns about her safety, if unsupported by her doctor’s note, could be viewed as discriminatory based on the employer’s perception of her limitations.

Ultimately, keep in mind that showing your employees you care about their health and safety can improve morale and employee retention.

Column based on questions asked by callers on the Labor Law Helpline, a service to California Chamber of Commerce preferred and executive members. For expert explanations of labor laws and Cal/OSHA regulations, not legal counsel for specific situations, call (800) 348-2262 or submit your question at

Staff Contact: Dana Leisinger