Archive Notice - OSHA Archive

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and no longer represents OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.

Reproductive Hazards

A large number of workplace chemicals, physical and biologic agents can damage the reproductive systems of both male and female workers, resulting in infertility, spontaneous abortion, developmental impairment or death in an embryo, fetus or child. In the past, OSHA has issued a limited number of standards that acknowledge and provide partial protection from reproductive risks. OSHA is developing an action plan to reduce worker exposures to reproductive hazards but is not initiating rulemaking at this time.

Hazard Description

Of those chemicals in the 1994 Register of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS) that are identified reproductive hazards, workers were found by the 1983 National Occupational Exposure Survey (NOES) to be exposed to 1,132 of these chemicals (1, 2). Some of these chemicals, as well as physical and biologic agents, are in widepread use at work, including various heavy metals (e.g. lead and cadmium), organohalide pesticides, organic solvents (e.g. glycol ethers), chemical intermediates (e.g. styrene and vinyl chloride), waste anesthetic gases, and some anti-cancer drugs. Most of the 70,000 chemicals in commercial use have never been tested for reproductive effects (3).

Occupational exposures can produce a wide range of effects on reproduction. The effects of parental exposure before conception include reduced fertility, unsuccessful fertilization or implantation, an abnormal fetus, reduced libido, or menstrual dysfunction. Maternal exposure after conception may result in perinatal death, low birth weight, birth defects, developmental or behavioral disabilities, and cancer. (4, 5, 6, 7)

There is considerable uncertainty about the number of workers actually exposed to harmful levels of workplace reproductive hazards and the number of resulting adverse health effects. However, a substantial number of scientific studies have found these effects in specific groups of workers following both maternal and paternal exposure (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).
  • For example, adverse effects on semen quality have been observed in forestry workers and papaya workers following exposure to fumigants containing ethylene dibromide (EDB) (14, 16). Furthermore, adverse effects to semen quality were observed at exposure levels near the NIOSH recommended limit for EDB and greatly below OSHA's current standard for EDB (14).
  • In addition, adverse effects to male fertility (lowered sperm count) were also observed in workers exposed to 2-ethoxyethanol (2-EE) used as a binder slurry in a metal castings process and in shipyard painters exposed to 2EE and 2-methoxyethanol (2-ME) (15, 17).
Current Status

Information about reproductive damage has rarely been used in setting workplace exposure levels. There are no general standards governing reproductive hazards. Three OSHA standards (Lead, Dibromochloropropane, and Ethylene Oxide) acknowledge and provide at least partial protection from reproductive risks. In addition, OSHA is finalizing a rule on glycol ethers based primarily on reproductive health effects.

NIOSH has sponsored a variety of conferences, workshops, reports and research concerning occupational reproductive hazards, and in 1988 NIOSH developed a "National Strategy for the Prevention of Disorders of Reproduction."
  • NIOSH participates in the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology (DART) research program sponsored by the National Toxicology Program. This program selects potential hazards for animal study.
  • NIOSH works with other government agencies to establish research methods for field studies.
  • NIOSH has its own field and laboratory research programs. Since the discovery of the reproductive toxicity of dibromochloropropane (DBCP), NIOSH has conducted evaluations in over a dozen worksites for the possible effects of occupational exposures on the male reproductive system. Several studies of pregnancy outcomes also have been conducted.
The National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) recommended this issue for priority action. In recommendations from its November 30, 1994 meeting, NACOSH recommended that NIOSH conduct research on reproductive hazards and develop guidelines. Additionally, in a December 8, 1994 memorandum to its members, the Advisory Committee on Construction Occupational Safety and Health (ACCOSH) recommended that OSHA address reproductive hazards of construction materials.


Reproductive Hazards meets several of the criteria for designation as an OSHA priority. In particular, this is a long-neglected issue which poses serious and long-term consequences for a large number of workers (both parents and their children) and that a wide range of potential agents are involved. Very good epidemiologic data exist for some reproductive hazards in specific industries. Known engineering and administrative controls could potentially reduce the risk to existing hazards. The National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) as well as a number of other stakeholders recommend that OSHA include reproductive hazards as a priority issue.

  1. Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institiute for Occupational Safety and Health. Available from the Superintendent of Documents. Washington, DC, US Printing Office.
  2. NIOSH; National Occupational Exposure Survey; 1981-1983.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Toxic Substances; Chemical Substance Inventory. EPA Publication 620-929/0027, 1985. Supplement EPA Publication 722-666, 1990, Washington, DC.
  4. Nelson BK. 1989. Developmental and reproductive hazards: an overview of adverse outcomes from industrial and environmental exposures. Pharmacopsychoecologia 2: 1-12.
  5. U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. 1985. Reproductive Health Hazards in the Workplace. U.S. GPO, OTA-BA-266.
  6. Barlow SM, Sullivan FM. 1982. Reproductive hazards of industrial chemicals: an evaluation of animal and human data. London: Academic Press.
  7. Bloom AD, Paul NW, eds. 1981. Guidelines for studies of human populations exposed to mutagenic and reproductive hazards: proceedings of conference sponsored by Centers for Disease Control and March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.
  8. Strobino, BR, Kline J, Stein Z. 1978. Chemical and physical exposures of parents: effects on human reproduction and offspring. Early Hum Dev 1: 371-99.
  9. Paul M., Himmelstein J. 1988. Reproductive hazards in the workplace: What the practitioner need to know about chemical exposure. Obstet Gynecol 71:921-938.
  10. Savitz D., Sonnenfeld N., Oshan A. 1994. Review of epidemiologic studies of paternal exposure and spontaneous abortion. Am J Ind Med 25:361-383.
  11. Taskinen H, Anttila A, Lindbohm M-L, et al. 1989. Spontaneous abortions and congenital malformations among wives of men occupationally exposed to organic solvents. Scand J Work Environ Health 15:345-353.
  12. Alcser KH, Brix KA, Fine LJ, et al. 1989. Occupational mercury exposure and male reproductive health. Am J Ind Med 15:517-529.
  13. Schrader S.M. and M.H. Kanitz 1994. Occupational Hazards to Male Reproduction. In: State of the Art Reviews in Occupational Medicine: Reproductive Hazards. Ed. E. Gold, M. Schenker, and B. Lasley. Pages 405-414.
  14. Ratcliffe J.M., Schrader S.M., Steenland K., Clapp D.E., Turner T., Hornung R.W. 1987. Semen quality in papaya workers with long term exposure to ethylene dibromide. Brit J Ind Med; 44:317-326.
  15. Ratcliffe J.M., Schrader S.M., Clapp D.E., Halperin W.E., Turner T.W., and Hornung R.W. 1989. Semen quality in workers exposed to 2-ethoxyethanol. Brit J Ind Med; 46:399-406.
  16. Schrader S.M., Turner T.W., and Ratcliffe J.M. 1988. The Effects of Ethylene Dibromide on Semen Quality: A Comparison of Short Term and Chronic Exposure. Reproductive Toxicology; 2:191-198.
  17. Welch L.S., Schrader S.M., Turner T.W., and Cullen M.R. 1988. Effects of Exposure to Ethylene Glycol Ethers on Shipyard Painters: II. Male Reproduction. Am J Ind Med. 14:509-526.

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and no longer represents OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.