Thursday, March 22, 2007

OHS and pregnancy

Sciencewoman recently blogged about reasons women leave science, and one of her commenters brought up the issue of pregnancy and laboratory safety requirements. The way I see it, there are three basic approaches to this issue. I will lay them out as dispassionately and factually as scientifically possible.

1. The Victorian chauvinist approach. This approach assumes that womenfolk are vital to the health of the country as bearers of young men who we desperately need to send into the trenches against the Germans. As such, it is vital to protect the childbearing resource at all costs, and any pesky activity like earning a living could endanger the ability of society to breed a new generation of pig-headed, antediluvian assholes.

2. The lawyerphillic approach. This approach assumes that any risk, however minute, must be avoided in order to protect the university gold. Instead of resources to protect, pregnant women are liabilities to minimize. Other than that distinction, this approach is identical to the Victorian chauvinist approach.

3. The sensible scientific approach. Under this system, pregnant research staff are informed of potential risks, they have those risks compared to more familiar, out-of-lab dangers in order to make them comprehensible. The lab then makes arrangements so that if the pregnant researcher chooses not to take a risk, it does not impact on her work. She then makes an informed choice about how to proceed.

Here’s an example of how the third way works, taken from a long time ago in a university far far away…

Dr. XX, a pregnant post-doc, wanted to know if exposure to her 233U spike would constitute a radiological hazard risk to her unborn child. The lab supervisor, Dr. XY, showed Dr. XX the math to determine what the decay rate was. He then pulled out a Geiger counter, put it next to her spike (tick tick tick….) to demonstrate. In order to compare this with the radiological risk from real-life items, he them put the counter next to a cement wall (tictictictictic…) Dr. XY then reminded Dr. XX what the biological effects of ionizing radiation were, and told her that if she chose not to spike her own samples, he or someone else would be happy to do it for her. Dr. XX then made her informed decision.

Note to Dr. XY wannabes. If you are looking for a slightly radioactive everyday item to compare a low level radiohazard to, DO NOT USE the woman’s bump! While it may seem perfectly logical to point out, “Look, your baby’s already way more radioactive than your sample,” in practice this approach is asking for trouble. So unless you want your Geiger counter forcibly inserted into your low photon environment, find something else.


Chris R said...

So unless you want your Geiger counter forcibly inserted into your low photon environment, find something else.

I'm hoping that this isn't the voice of painful experience?

Jenny F. Scientist said...

What I always tell people is they shouldn't be drinking the 32-P anyways. But in all seriousness, one shouldn't be exposed to the nasty chemicals anyways (Eth. bromide on the skin? Bad) and so maybe a little extra caution is warranted. But if you get alpha-amanitin on your skin, you'll be just as dead if you're pregnant or not.

...unless you want your Geiger counter forcibly inserted...
(hee hee)

Dr. Lemming said...

My bottom clicks whenever I eat bananas.

I have no idea what those things are, so I might just stick to rocks. And associated inorganic toxins.