Clocking in for two: Long hours and shift work tied to preterm birth risk

By Our Reporter

Shift work and logging long hours could be a risky business, not just for employees but potentially for their unborn children. That’s according to a new study led by Monash University, which delves into the relationship between job demands and the likelihood of preterm birth. The research indicates that pregnant women engaged in shift work or working over 40 hours per week face higher risks of delivering their babies before 37 weeks.

Published in Public Health Reviews, the study scrutinised data from 37 different investigations across 21 countries. It revealed that women in jobs with physical demands or exposure to whole-body vibration were more likely to experience preterm birth. Specifically, women involved in shift work had a 63% higher chance, while those putting in over 40 hours a week had a 44% increased risk.

While the results are concerning, the researchers emphasise that most work roles can be adapted to mitigate these risks. According to Haimanot Abebe Adane, the study’s first author and a PhD student at Monash University, the findings have far-reaching implications. “This study is important because preterm birth has been linked with health complications for children such as diabetes, hypertension, lung and heart disease later in adulthood,” he said.

Surprisingly, the study did not find an increased risk of preterm birth for women who stood for long periods or engaged in heavy lifting at work. This somewhat counterintuitive outcome suggests that not all physically demanding jobs pose the same level of risk to expecting mothers.

The numbers paint a compelling picture. Preterm birth rates vary between five to 18% globally across 184 nations. An estimated 15 million preterm births are reported each year, resulting in 1.1 million infant deaths. These numbers make the study’s findings especially significant, not only for expectant mothers but also for their employers.

Professor Alex Collie, study co-author and a member of Monash University’s faculty, highlighted the wider social implications. “We know that work is generally good for health. We are not suggesting that pregnant women should not work,” he pointed out. Instead, he suggests that employers should consider making adjustments for pregnant employees in physically demanding roles. These tweaks, he believes, could play a key role in reducing the potential risks involved.

This is particularly pertinent for Australia, where over three-quarters of women work throughout their reproductive years. The number of women in physically demanding jobs has been on the rise, warranting closer scrutiny and timely interventions. “As the number of Australian women in the workforce has increased, so has the number of women in physically demanding jobs. We need workplace policy and procedures that balance these risks while not limiting the workforce participation of women,” added Professor Collie.

The research team calls for further studies to explore these risks and possible interventions, particularly in the Australian context. “We found a single study in Australia, and that one study reported data collected last century. Jobs have changed substantially over the past 20 years, and we need up-to-date evidence to develop effective workplace policy,” Mr Adane concluded.

In summary, while work may be a necessary part of life for many, this study shows that certain types of employment could carry risks for pregnant women and their future children. However, with careful job modifications and proactive employer policies, it’s possible to create a safer working environment for everyone involved.

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