Hesperian Health Guides

Working affects reproductive health

In this chapter:

Reproductive and sexual health can be affected by working conditions and exposure to chemicals that affect reproductive organs. Policies and practices in the factory that control or limit our reproductive choices also harm our reproductive and sexual health.

Women face many challenges from factory work. Some bosses refuse to hire married women, pregnant women, or women with children. Some factories even have policies to prevent women from getting pregnant.

a woman speaking.
They sent me to a laboratory to do a blood test. They said, "It’s the law to check workers to see if they are healthy." But I knew that it was to see if I was pregnant. They send the results directly to the boss. If you’re pregnant, they will just tell you there is no work.
WGTHAS Ch26 Page 376-2.png

Chemicals and bad working conditions hurt women by causing problems with monthly bleeding, complications of pregnancy, miscarriage, or the health of the baby. Chemicals are also linked with cancers in the breasts, womb, and ovaries. Chemicals that hurt people’s reproductive health affect women more than men because women’s bodies do more of the work of reproduction.

Men are also hurt by factory conditions. Chemicals, heat, stress, and overwork can harm a man’s desire for sex and his ability to have sex (impotence) or to have children (infertility). Some chemicals can damage a man’s sperm in ways that cause miscarriage or cause a baby to be born with health problems. Other chemicals can cause cancer of the testicles.

Women also face reproductive and sexual harm in communities where their reproductive and sexual health is controlled by men. They are harmed by lack of information and access to services for sexual health, family planning, domestic violence, STIs, and cancer.

Control over women’s fertility and family life

For most people, having children is an important part of their sexual health. Reproductive health is especially important for women because they get pregnant, give birth, feed the baby, and are often the primary caregivers of the family.

In many factories, however, women are forced to choose between having children or having a job. Employers attempt to control workers’ behavior and their decisions about sex and family planning through factory policies. They try to prevent women from becoming mothers while employed. Some bosses only hire women who are unmarried with no children.

a woman thinking while she sweeps the floor in a factory; a boss stands nearby.
I hope he doesn’t notice my belly yet. I really need to keep this job!
a boss talking to a man who holds a baby.
So you’re a father now. Congratulations!

If women do become pregnant, the employers often deny pregnant women safer jobs, paid health care for prenatal visits and delivery, or paid leave before and after giving birth, forcing them to either accept the health risks to themselves and their babies or to quit to take care of their families. When women do not have access to safer jobs and health care, they can suffer miscarriages, have difficult pregnancies and births, deliver babies prematurely, and can even die.

Men rarely are questioned about how having children will affect their work.

We have to get sterilized to get a job

In Brazil, our union receives many complaints from women who are asked to provide proof that they have been sterilized in order to get a job. The employers deny they do this and since the requests are made verbally, there is no evidence. Other companies perform "period inspections" to make sure that female employees are having their periods. Women have to write the date their period is supposed to begin on a giant blackboard in the common room. On that date they have to go see the doctor to prove they are menstruating. This is so humiliating and wrong!

Forced pregnancy tests: Often, a woman applying for work must show proof she is not pregnant. Each woman must bring a note from a doctor or allow the employer’s doctor to test her. She is not hired if she is pregnant or refuses the test.

a woman speaking.
The clinic at our factory gives out the pill so women won’t get pregnant, but not condoms, which would help us prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Pressure not to become pregnant: Some women are forced to sign an agreement that states they will not give birth while they have a job at the factory.

Harassment or firing: If a woman worker becomes pregnant, she is fired or harassed into quitting. Harassment includes verbal abuse, higher production quotas, longer work hours, or transfer to a more difficult job, such as from a sitting to a standing job or to a hotter work area.

But I am pregnant!

WGTHAS Ch26 Page 378-2.png

I was transferred to night shift even after I told the employee relations lady I was pregnant. My shift was from 7 pm to 7 am. The worst part was that I had to work standing up. I spent 12 hours on my feet and as my pregnancy progressed, this became really difficult and painful. I asked my leader for a chair and he said no, because my pregnancy didn’t show and he didn’t believe I was pregnant. But I had a big belly! A few weeks later I was sent to inspect daily quota cards in an area where they use several chemicals that are harmful for pregnant women. I quit because I just couldn’t handle it any more, and I lost my maternity leave.

Contract workers and maternity leave

I got a job at the factory through a Manpower (temporary worker) agency in El Salvador. Although I work in the factory the same as other workers, my boss, the one that pays me, is the Manpower agency.
WGTHAS Ch26 Page 379-1.png
When I got pregnant, I went to the Manpower agency to ask about my leave and they said it was the responsibility of the factory. And when I went to the factory they said it was the responsibility of the Manpower agency. This went on for a while until I decided to contact the Centro de Estudios y Apoyo Laboral (CEAL). They made a complaint to both the factory and the Manpower agency and got them to agree that it was the Manpower agency’s duty to pay for my maternity leave.

Maternity leave denied: Many countries require employers to give maternity leave or pay, but bosses often forbid workers from taking it if they want to return to work after birth. Because the importance of a father’s support to a new mother and baby is not recognized, leave for fathers of new babies is generally not thought to be important, not given, and usually not required by law.

No child care center at the factory: Women must find someone to watch their children during work hours, or leave them unsupervised. If we are forced to do overtime, who feeds and cares for our children?

No place or time to breastfeed infants at the factory: This prevents infants from being fed properly and harms the mother’s ability to make milk for breastfeeding. Babies should breastfeed for at least 1 year.

Factories in Bangladesh offer childcare

Phulki is an organization that establishes childcare centers inside factories in Bangladesh. Phulki convinces the factory owners to provide the space, startup costs, and caregivers’ salaries. The workers who use the childcare facilities pay a small fee for food and other expenses.

The Phulki program has been very successful because it benefits both the workers and the factories. It is a sustainable model that can be adapted to each factory. Workers do not have to worry about their kids being alone at home, or having to find childcare for them, which is often costly. Mothers have access to their children for breastfeeding during breaks. Employers who have an on-site childcare facility find workers miss fewer days of work and are more productive.

Wgthas black-un.png Wgthas black-ilo.png The right to work that does not affect reproductive health Wgthas white-cedaw.png
The The ILO Chemicals Convention (No. 170) and Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 155) say the employer must protect you from chemicals and conditions that affect your health, including reproductive health.

The ILO Maternity Protection Convention (No. 183) says:

  • Medical benefits, including prenatal, childbirth, and postnatal care, must be provided for women and their children.
  • Forced pregnancy tests are prohibited unless the work is proven to be harmful to pregnant women and their babies.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) says countries must protect pregnant women by:

  • Making it illegal for employers to fire women because they are pregnant or because they go on maternity leave.
  • Giving special protection to women during pregnancy, particularly in types of work proven to be harmful.
The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers’ rights are explained in Appendix A.

a group of people holding signs that demand "No forced pregnancy tests," time off to care for sick children, and the banning of harmful chemicals.


Most chemicals in use today have not been tested for how they affect our reproductive and sexual health. The chemical industry often challenges the health research that is carried out, and opposes the regulation or banning of dangerous chemicals, saying it unfairly limits their rights — and their profits. OSH professionals can play an important role by educating themselves, factory management, and workers about chemical research and always looking for ways to use safer chemicals at work.

Can work make you infertile?

I work in the cleanroom of an electronics factory. We dip wafers into chemicals to make computer chips. After a couple of months on the job, I began having problems with my period. Before, I was very regular. But it started coming at odd times or didn’t come at all. Once I thought I was pregnant and was scared I would lose my job. At my plant, pregnant women are fired. Then my period finally came. But about a year ago, my period just stopped. After 5 months, I told one of my co-workers. She had the same problem! And so did the other woman we worked with. How could it be we were all having the same thing?
WGTHAS Ch26 Page 381-1.png

We went together to talk to a doctor. After many tests that found nothing, the doctor asked what chemicals we used at work. We didn’t know. We didn’t even know how to find out. She told us to look for labels on the containers the chemicals came in. They had such long names we had to learn to memorize them letter by letter so we could write them down at night in our dormitories. We took the list to the doctor. The doctor found studies showing that one of the chemicals, called 2-bromopropane, affected women’s reproductive systems. I wondered if the bosses chose this chemical so we wouldn’t have children! That way we could work all the time without family responsibilities. We were all very angry.

The doctor told us to talk to the factory’s occupational health manager. He said we were not the only ones suffering this way. And it wasn’t just women — men were having problems, too. The Department of Labor and the National Institute of Occupational Health were called to investigate. They found a number of workers with reproductive problems caused by 2-bromopropane. The company was forced by the government to stop using 2-bromopropane. They also had to pay us compensation for harming our health.

Reproductive health problems caused by some chemicals

Acetone used in manufacture and cleaning of chips and LEDs may cause miscarriages and reduced fertility in men.
Benzene used in manufacture and cleaning of chips and PCBs may cause reduced fertility in men, menstrual problems and anemia in pregnant women, and may harm the baby inside the womb.
Cadmium used in soldering and plating may damage men and women’s reproductive systems. It can cause birth defects. It can cause prostate cancer.
Carbon tetrachloride used in manufacture, assembly, and cleaning of chips can affect the testicles and male fertility and may damage the baby inside the womb.
Hexane used as a cleaner in garment and electronic factories and in glues in shoe factories may cause reduced fertility in men.
Lead used in solder, batteries, colored plastics, glazes and paints may damage men’s reproductive system, may cause menstrual problems, and may cause birth defects and learning problems in babies.
Trichloroethylene (TCE) used for spot cleaning in garment factories and cleaning, assembly, soldering, encapsulating, and bonding in electronics factories can cause birth defects.
Toluene used in glues in shoe factories and in cleaning, assembly, and soldering in electronics factories may cause defects.
Xylene used to manufacture, clean, and assemble chips, PCBs, LCDs, and LEDs may cause birth defects.

For information on cancer of the reproductive system, see Finding reproductive system cancers early.

For more information about chemicals that harm reproductive health, see Appendix B: Common chemicals and materials.

Organize for safer chemicals

Find out as much as you can about the chemicals you work with. If your employer divides or mixes the chemicals before bringing them to your workstations, get labels from the original containers.

Find out if women and men have signs of sexual or reproductive health problems. Talking about this may be uncomfortable, but knowing how many people in the factory have these problems is just as important as knowing how many people have breathing problems or have been injured by a machine.

Join or form groups to protect workers from reproductive dangers and get OSH professionals to help you understand the technical information and alternatives. Unions and consumer groups can help pressure employers and governments for safer chemicals to be used.

Chemical that causes infertility is banned in the USA

My wife and I were trying to have a baby, but she couldn’t get pregnant. We both went to our doctors. Her examination was normal but mine showed I had no sperm in my semen. I knew that some chemicals cause reproductive problems, and I worked with almost 100 different chemicals. It was hard to figure out which caused the problem.

I talked to my co-workers and they told me about other couples who also had been unable to have children. I convinced 5 to get tested. Tests showed all 6 of us had few or no sperm at all! Our union, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (now part of the Steelworkers) sent us to a doctor for help. He confirmed the results, did more tests, and agreed our problem was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

4 of 100 chemicals in the factory had been shown to have reproductive effects on animals. But one chemical, DBCP, was being produced in very large amounts. The union had workers tested in 2 other factories where DBCP was produced, and got similar results. The connection between DBCP and fertility problems became clear when we found out that DBCP was the only chemical that workers in all 3 plants had in common.

We fought to get DBCP banned, while the industry argued we just needed better safety measures. But too many people had already become sterile, and we could not let that continue. Then our union’s media campaign got the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and we finally convinced them to ban DBCP use in California, and then in the entire country. Unfortunately, the EPA did not ban production of DBCP, so companies in other countries continue to buy and use it, denying workers around the world the joy of having children.

Finding reproductive system cancers early

Cancer can happen to anyone. But cancers found early may be curable. One way of finding cancer is by having regular checkups and tests. Some you can do at home and some you need to do in a clinic.

Breast exams

Every woman can learn how to examine her own breasts. Do it every month, a few days after your period.

Look at your breast in the mirror for any changes, lumps, or dimples. Stretch your arms above your head and feel your breasts with the flat of your fingers, pressing your breasts in a circle to find any lumps. Squeeze your nipples. If you see blood or discharge, get medical help.

If you find a hard lump that has an uneven shape, is painless, or does not move when you push it, see a health worker.

The only way to know if a lump is cancer is by removing all or part of it, a process called a "biopsy," and testing it in a laboratory.

Cervical exams

A woman can have cancer of the cervix (the opening of the womb) for a long time and have no signs. Detect early signs of cancer with either of these 2 tests:

For the Pap test, the health worker gently scrapes a bit of tissue from the cervix and sends it to a laboratory. Positive results mean you need treatment. Get a Pap test every 3 years. It is not painful and only takes a few minutes.

For the vinegar test, also called visual inspection, the health worker paints a little white vinegar on the opening of the cervix (it does not hurt) to see if any tissue turns white. If it does, you will need a Pap test to confirm it is cancer or to treat it by freezing, called cryotherapy.

To learn more about the vinegar and Pap tests, see Where Women Have No Doctor, or ask a health worker for information.

Testicular exams

Men should do a testicular self-exam monthly. Gently roll each testicle between your fingers. Feel for lumps, swelling, pain, or changes in size, shape, or texture. If you find any, see a doctor. An ultrasound can confirm if it is cancer. This cancer grows quickly, so get treatment as soon as possible.

Wgthas Ch5 Page 95-1.png
This page was updated:06 Jul 2024