This is about Sarah who was pregnant at age 17, unmarried and living with her parents.
She had worked at the factory since leaving school. I was the occupational health adviser at the factory and had been in post for about 6 months.
Sarah was a packer, packing small cartons of milk weighing 0.2 kgs into pallets. The tetrapacks travelled along the production line where Sarah waited with her team to move the individual cartons to the pallets. Each packer picked 2 cartons with each hand down onto the pallets.
The job lasted over an 8 hour shift and involved bending and reaching, packing the small cartons of milk into layers on top of each other as filled. Once the pallet was complete a fork lift truck would replace with an empty tray placed on the ground. Then the process started over again.
Sarah asked me to undertake the pregnancy risk assessment on the advice of her midwife who was concerned about the work affecting the pregnancy. I arranged the assessment with a reluctant Manager who said that there was absolutely no need to do this – it was perfectly safe. Pregnancy, he told me, was not an illness, and although I agreed I pointed out the employers duties under health and safety laws to make sure we were not harming pregnant Sarah or developing baby.
The Pregnancy Risk Assessment
The Manager was not around when I visited the production line for my assessment but as I watched the process from start to finish, asked about breaks and welfare facilities, I knew my recommendations would cause me a load of hassle. The Manager had been in the company for years, was a senior director and a dinosaur. He did not believe in namby pamby health and safety restrictions. His attitude was that people were lucky to have a job – and that label probably included me too.
I dreaded telling him that there were significant risks to the pregnancy and that alternative work needed plus to act soon as changes happen to muscles and tendons (they become more stretchy and liable to injury) as the pregnancy progressed. Nevertheless, I wrote my report and waited for the nuclear fallout. I was not disappointed.
The manager, after reading my results from the manual handling risk assessment, got angry. Firstly with the girl for involving occupational health and then with me for suggesting that she was unable to do her current work. He frightened Sarah by saying she would have to leave because there was nothing he could find for her to do and she was desperately short of money.
Sarah, whose job was now under threat said she was quite willing to do the job anyway. She asked me to withdraw my recommendations as she was terrified of being sacked and did not want her manager angry with her.
I called the manager and asked him if we could have a discussion about the situation. He arrived shortly after, stomping into my office very red in the face and bursting with indignation. The conversation went something like this:
‘I see you have played into her hands and suggested she stop work?’
‘I am sorry if you see it that way but in my professional opinion there is a risk to the pregnancy if she continues doing this work with repeated lifting, bending and stretching’
‘Well we have never had a problem before and we have had loads of pregnant women working. You are over reacting to a normal everyday pregnancy’
I was overreacting…..
I pointed out that my recommendations were consistent with best practice and current medical knowledge. It was up to him to accept my recommendations or not. The manager told me that the girl was happy to continue in the job and he thought I was obstructive, the work would continue as it had always been done and that my recommendations were basically, well, rubbish. Although I was angry with his attitude and felt for Sarah, I did not change my recommendations and made sure that Personnel were aware of the situation, giving them a copy of my report and pregnancy risk assessment for the files.
Sarah continued to work on the milk carton line and I occasionally caught a glimpse of her in the canteen but she avoided eye contact now. I wasn’t sure why – whether disappointed in me, the manager or herself, but I understood her decision.
A month later I learned that Sarah had miscarried. Whether due to the manual handling at work or whether it happened naturally no one will ever know. I was really sorry that it turned out that way.
One thing good came out of it though – I never had any trouble with that Manager again.