When work is hazardous to a man's reproductive health
Published by CCH Australia - Saturday, 5th February 2005, By Gaby Grammeno, OHS consultant
Surely a man's occupation could not influence his reproductive
health. Wrong. Concern about sperm has blossomed with the advent of IVF - In Vitro Fertilisation.
Before that, infertility was often considered a
female problem, but IVF professionals report a significant and
perhaps increasing proportion of cases in which there are problems
with sperm. Debate rages about whether male fertility is on the
In the heat of the argument about environmental and
inherited problems, the impact of workplace damage to men's
reproductive health is often forgotten. Nevertheless, workplace
exposures are well established among the environmental influences
that can affect the number and quality of a man's sperm.
The connection with work has been confirmed by the observations of
fertility clinics such as the Queensland Fertility Group. Staff of
this Brisbane clinic have noticed an association between the quality
of the men's semen, and the jobs those men do. The clinic's
scientific director, Keith Harrison, says the clinic has done some
studies which show that the level of semen defects in men who come
to the clinic for IVF varies according to their occupation.
Around one quarter of the office workers have significant semen defects,
but blue-collar workers, such as transport workers, have about 50%
more semen defects than office workers. “In occupations where they actually get their hands dirty, such as
builders, electricians, painters, plumbers, there's well over a 50%
increase in the incidence of abnormal semen, and then in the guys
who really get their hands dirty - motor mechanics, fitters,
turners, welders, machinery operators - we see an almost doubling or
even greater increase in the incidence of semen defects”, Mr Harrison said. He added that farmers, graziers and miners also have
about twice the level of semen defects as office-based workers.
Workplace reproductive hazards
Workplace hazards to men include high doses of ionising radiation,
for example X-rays, and about 200 chemical agents that may
potentially affect reproductive health. Contact with certain agents
can result in decreased libido and impotence, testicular damage or
infertility, and damaged sperm. Many chemicals have not been checked
for their effects on human reproduction.
In men, sperm are continuously produced by cells in the testicles. Workplace hazards may cause reproductive problems in a number of
possible ways:- damage to the cells and tissue in the testicle such that sperm
cannot be produced at all or not in large enough numbers for
fertility- decrease in the hormones necessary for sperm production and sexual
function- damage to the sperm themselves- damage to the nerves on which orgasm and ejaculation depend.
Agents that damage sperm are of particular concern because many do
so by damaging the genetic material carried in the sperm (ie they
cause mutations). If this occurs and that sperm fertilises an egg,
then an abnormal pregnancy may occur, possibly leading to a
miscarriage early in pregnancy, death of the foetus later in
pregnancy or the birth of a child with an abnormality. Some types of workplace exposures can result in adverse reproductive
outcomes, including infertility, impotence, miscarriage, foetal
malformation, underweight babies and premature birth.
excessive exposure to lead can lead to lack of libido, a decrease in
sperm counts, an increase in the number of abnormal sperm,
miscarriage and stillbirth. Similarly, men who work with DBCP
- a type of fumigant - have a history of decreased fertility and
sterility. A range of chemical, physical and biological agents can cause these
types of outcomes. Workers in many occupations may be exposed to
reproductive health hazards, especially if they work with chemicals,
solvents or plastics.
And of course it is not only men's reproductive health which can be
affected, but also the potential for workplace damage to women's
reproductive capacity and to their unborn children is naturally a
central focus for preventive efforts in this area.
effects on women's bodies and the health of their babies have been
extensively studied, and codes of practice and other resources have
been developed to guide organisations in their duty of care relating
to pregnant employees or those who may become pregnant. Effects on men's reproductive health have historically received less
attention, however, though occupational links with men's
reproductive problems are well established.
Of course occupational hazards are not the only type of risk to
reproductive health. According to Professor John Aitken from the
Australian Centre of Excellence in Biotechnology and Development at
Newcastle University, we are in all probability carrying around in
our genes the consequences of our great grandparents' hazardous
exposures. For example, if your great grandfather smoked a pipe, it
may have lead to his death from lung cancer, but the toxicants in
tobacco smoke didn't just impact upon his lungs, they also impacted
upon the DNA integrity in his spermatozoa.“And because it's in the germ line there is the potential for those
effects to be carried on down through the generations”, Professor
Other risks to reproductive health may arise from influences such as
sedentary work, the medications we use, or high temperatures.
According to some researchers, oestrogens in the environment may
pose a risk, though this is disputed by others.
The evidence for the last factor is “vanishingly small”, according
to David Handelsman, Director of the ANZAC Research Institute at the
University of Sydney, who is critical of what he says is a cult-like
belief in falling sperm counts. “It has led to more research and that's a good thing, but
unfortunately the prompts for it, if they're suitably alarming,
often take root in a way that even good evidence won't necessarily
eradicate”, Mr Handelsman said.
Employers' duties under the law
As with other health and safety hazards, employers must take a risk
management approach to reproductive hazards. Reproductive risks may be involved in exposure to radiation, as well
as to some metals, solvents, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, biological
agents (eg infectious diseases) and other substances. Relevant
Material Safety Data Sheets should be consulted, and specifications
relating to reproduction, fertility and potential damage to the
foetus should be checked.
Expert advice may also be required, as
available information on reproductive effects is not always
complete. Should a hazard be found to affect the reproductive
system, steps must be taken to address the issue.
Prevention of adverse effects can be accomplished by following the
hierarchy of risk control. That is, hazardous exposures should be
eliminated if possible, and if this is not practicable, they should
be reduced, for example, by substituting a toxic substance with a
less toxic one. Safe work practices that reduce workers' exposure need to be
established and followed, administrative controls put in place to
minimise the number of people exposed, and workers need to be
informed about reproductive hazards and trained in risk control
Ventilation needs to be adequate for the hazards which may be
present, and suitable personal protective equipment should be
provided if risks cannot be effectively controlled in other ways. Early notification of pregnancy should be encouraged to ensure
adequate care and protection from known reproductive hazards, and in
some cases health surveillance programs should be established to
monitor exposed individuals for any signs of adverse effects.
Guidance material available
Available guidance includes Reproductive Health and Pregnancy, a
factsheet available from the National Occupational Health and Safety
Commission, and the Pregnancy and Work Guide 2002 from WorkCover NSW.