LEAD Action News Vol 2 no 2 Autumn 1994
Lead and Women: Women and the Environment
by Elizabeth O'Brien
As soon as I announced that the theme of the next issue of LEAD Action News would be Lead and Women, Women and the Environment, Dr ChloŽ Mason kindly sent in a vast array of articles to add to the excellent library here at the Community Lead Information Centre (CLIC).
Here is an annotated bibliography and selected quotes. Full bibliographical details, plus the articles. can be obtained from The LEAD Group by phoning (02) 9716 0014.
Lead and Women at Work
Reproductive Hazards in the Workplace.
Reproductive Hazards, by Regina Kenen, successfully draws together the diverse subjects of reproductive health. the assessment of health risks from hazards and conditions in the workplace. legal provisions to protect occupational health and the rights of women (and all workers) to safe employment. Kenen's book also covers the social history of health and safety rights at work and ensures that the reader appreciates how current regulations have grown from social action for change. The reader is engaged with topical issues; for example. the so-called foetal protection policies - excluding women from jobs where reproductive health hazards exist ≠which the US Supreme Court recently struck down in a class action case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Lead and Foetal Protection
Since 1977 women have been objecting to a rash of company policies barring women from jobs on account of some reproductive health risk. The campaign was started in Willow Islands, West Virginia where five women underwent sterilisation rather than lose their jobs in the lead pigment department of a company. The company had informed the women that they had the option of leaving jobs which paid $225 per week plus overtime and transferring to janitorial jobs which paid $175 per week with no extras. Many US companies had adopted so-called "foetal protection policies" which operated by excluding women from jobs involving a wide range of chemicals and physical processes that are a reproductive health hazard (often to men as well) rather than by controlling the hazard at its source.
Mt Isa Mines injunction.
This article summarises the ramifications of a US Supreme Court decision. and sets the scene for the battle to prevent Australian companies from adopting discriminatory "foetal protection policies".
By September 1991. the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (also known as Worksafe Australia) through a tri-partite Taskforce had made considerable progress in revising the Draft Standard and Code of Practice for all lead workers. Those revisions overcame. in large part. the discriminatory impact on women's employment and the unduly high levels of exposure allowed to lead. a toxic substance. However. in late November. Mt Isa Mines - a corporation mining lead ore and smelting lead - took legal action against the actions of the National Commission in relation to lead and in relation to its consideration of the Sex Discrimination Act. 1984. Specifically. Mt Isa Mines sought an injunction restraining the Commission from "further considering the formulation of and the publication of the [lead] Standard and Code." The legal action. and a successful injunction. stops the development of the lead standard and code dead in its tracks. although it has been in the making since 1986.
Controlling women, controlling
Teachers at the local schools near the Pasminco Smelter at Lake Macquarie have been issued with curriculum materials on children and lead. These materials communicate to teachers that the family unit is the key to coping with excessive exposure to lead.
For example, 'Children who are supported and confident in their family unit will be better able to deal with problems associated with the lead issue.'
It's a far cry from controlling the hazard at source. However, these are excellent resource materials on the ideology of the family and the use of victim-blaming to manage hazards.
This article also describes progress in the Mt Isa Mines case.
Anti-Discrimination Law and Occupational Health and Safety
In this speech to the Forum on Women's Occupational Health and Safety (Brisbane, 1992) ChloŽ Mason uses foetal protectionism as one of three examples in the complete history of anti-discrimination law in Australia.
Feminism in the 90s
ChloŽ raises several important issues in the Mt Isa Mines case.
In the US several papers have been published on the general lack of attention that science pays to paternal exposure to lead.
A concern for women is that lead is not the only toxic material used in modern industry and allowing one industry to exclude women may set a dangerous precedent for other industries to apply for similar exemptions. Women have argued that foetal protectionism has the potential to bar women from millions of jobs, and also denies men the right to work in a safe and healthy workplace, since it reinforces the idea that it is acceptable for men to do dangerous work.
Federal Court endorses
safe use of lead at work
The Full Federal Court encouraged WorkSafe to continue working towards an appropriate lead standard which is fair to women in recognising that exposure to lead may affect reproductive capacity of women more than men, may harm the unborn foetus and may affect the health and welfare of a child breast≠fed by a mother with undue lead levels.
Lead standard saga continues
WorkSafe has to be clear about what equal opportunity is. The equal opportunity principle is not about ensuring fair conditions for a specific group of workers, but about ensuring fair conditions for all workers.
WorkSafe has been working on a lead standard since 1986 and, prior to the Mount Isa Mines challenge, was working closely with government, industry, and equal employment bodies to resolve issues relating to the entry of women into the lead processing industry. It is likely that the draft standard that was ready to to to the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission in December 1991 before the MIM challenge will be dusted off and the relevant passages relating to equal employment will be deleted or modified. Consideration of this "minimalist" amendment to the draft standard by WorkSafe's Standards Development Standing Committee and finalisation by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission should follow, possibly as early as June 1994.
Graphic by Rose Lennon, aged 6.
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