February 29, 2024 / Abby Roberts

The Mining Industry and Reproductive Health: Protecting Pregnant Workers

Image Credit: Getty Images / Tifonimages

Mining remains a male-dominated industry: the analytics firm McKinsey estimates that women comprise only 8 to 17 percent of the global mining workforce. Women are more likely to leave this industry before reaching middle management positions and often report being sidelined by their colleagues, struggling to access advanced leadership and technical positions, and having difficulty adapting to company cultures, McKinsey finds. According to a survey of Australian mining industry workers, 35 percent of women respondents had experienced sexist hostility within the past 12 months. OEHS professionals can expect workplace discrimination to affect women in mining in other countries, too.

Nonetheless, women are vital participants in the mining workforce, and their significance to the industry will only increase due to technological, social, and economic forces shaping the planet. The transition to green energy will require scaling up production of critical metals and minerals, such as aluminum, cobalt, copper, lithium, and rare earth elements. As recycling will only provide some of the required material, mining and the mining workforce must be expanded. By necessity, some of the people involved in this industry will be women: "Just to have the human capital to carry out the mining work, we need a higher representation of women in the sector," said Nancy Wilk, MHSc, CIH.

This means the mining industry must support women better, both in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives leading to better treatment and pay and controls that better protect their health and safety. The latter goal is hindered by lack of understanding of the occupational health needs of women in mining. In specific, Wilk and Courtney Gendron, MPH, CIH, aim to raise awareness of the effects on women's reproductive health related to hazardous occupational exposures they encounter in mining work environments.

The Need to Protect Pregnant Mining Industry Workers

Exposure criteria for reproductive hazards in mining are based mostly on studies of male populations. As occupational and environmental health and safety professionals supporting the Canadian mining industry, Wilk and Gendron have encountered the effects of this research gap.

Gendron is a senior occupational hygienist with the professional services firm WSP who has provided data collection and advisory services at mine sites for six years. Last year, Gendron assessed the risks posed by whole-body vibration to pregnant workers and reviewed a new exposure control program for protecting these workers. "This is the first time that the employer realized that women—pregnant women—will have to be looked at differently," she said. "They have different health risks."

She also realized that more research is necessary on the effects of whole-body vibration during pregnancy and the controls that may protect pregnant people. "There isn't a lot of research out there for us to be able to make recommendations for this person on whether or not they're safe," she added.

Wilk, a WSP environmental health and safety fellow, mentors women who are early career professionals in the mining industry. She also represents AIHA on CDC's National Occupational Research Agenda for Cancer, Reproductive, Cardiovascular, and Other Chronic Disease Prevention. In these roles, she has noted the clear lack of research on women's reproductive health, but she first became aware of the issue during the 1980s.

At the time, she was early in her occupational hygiene career, serving mines in southern Ontario and planning to have children. When she shared concerns about how exposures might affect her health and that of her children with her supervisor, he requested that she compile a list of potential teratogens—substances that may cause developmental anomalies. Together, they then discussed the list and Wilk's work, to determine if it might be safe or unsafe for her. This approach has stayed with Wilk over the years, as she's worked alongside and mentored other women.

"This is an understudied population, and we have an onus on us to help identify their unique concerns," said Wilk. "Once we've done that, then we're in a better place to identify policies and programs and to prevent negative reproductive or birth outcomes."

Gendron, who also plans to have children, has similarly been aware of her need to protect herself. "It's easier for us, as hygienists. We know how to look at the literature. We can make these decisions for ourselves if we have time," she said. "But it's different for other people. As a consultant, I might spend a couple of days on site, whenever I do visits, but there are women who don't have any formal health and safety training, and they may work underground all the time."

Exploring Potential Controls for Pregnant Workers

Mining is a high-risk industry in which pregnant workers face unique hazards, but Gendron and Wilk are clear that excluding women from certain roles on medical grounds or otherwise is not acceptable. "We should be able to hire someone who's qualified regardless of gender," Wilk said. "There are jobs there, like operating heavy mobile equipment or working with dangerous materials, that any gender can do safely, given the controls that have been established."

Controls may include protective work reassignment when a person's usual work is hazardous to their pregnancy, and they receive other work in the meantime, but this should take place on an as-necessary basis. "If that person can be in their regular job that they're trained to do already, and they're doing meaningful work, we don't want to isolate them from their colleagues," Gendron explained. "We'd like them to stay in that job. On the other hand, we want to make sure that if they need to modify their job, or be in a different job, that's done as well, but without research, it's pretty difficult."

Better research will also enable more effective training on keeping pregnant workers safe, which will contribute to a more supportive work environment overall. Many people may not feel comfortable telling their supervisor if they're newly pregnant or trying to become pregnant, Gendron noted, "but they might feel more comfortable to go to the health services on site to talk to them if there is awareness training beforehand, which can help out a lot, especially with mental health." It's also critical that pregnant workers and their colleagues know what to do if they experience a medical emergency, such as an ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, or preterm labor at work, especially at remote sites.

Gendron stressed the need for mining companies to integrate training and awareness into formal exposure control programs for pregnant workers, "so they have those limits and rules formalized from the beginning. It's written out and ready for whenever it's needed," she said.

Filling the Research Gap

Occupational and environmental health and safety professionals and researchers must become aware of the gap in knowledge relating to pregnant mining industry workers in order to fill it. One way that Gendron and Wilk plan to increase awareness is through hosting an AIHA Connect session on DEI and women's reproductive health in mining. This session will outline the past, present, and future of women in mining, steps to promote DEI, and possibilities for partnerships between organizations to tackle this issue. The presenters will also share resources available to help pregnant mining workers, enabling participants to take more proactive roles in protecting them.

"We're not formal academic researchers, but we recognize the gap, and we need support for this population of workers," said Wilk. She hopes that participants in her session with Gendron will come away being able to "communicate the importance to others of this cohort in our human capital in mining and the need to support these women and their reproductive health and prevent injurious exposures and adverse outcomes."

Gendron wants to see participants "use this information to create a program, or at least know where to go for this type of information, know that it's important, and know that a lot of places don't have programs implemented already." They may also think about whether their companies can provide protective reassignment for pregnant workers or additional, easy-to-understand resources that workers can access themselves.

"What we want people to be able to talk about is the importance of preventing harmful gestational exposures that will impact future generations," Wilk said. "It's pretty important work because we're talking about the health of individuals and the health of communities."

Nancy Wilk and Courtney Gendron will present Session L4, "Supporting Women in Mining: DEI and Reproductive Health," on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m. Eastern time. AIHA Connect 2024 will be held May 20–22 in person at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Columbus, Ohio, and virtually. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference agenda, or register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the assistant editor at AIHA.


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