I'm going to start by just telling you a little bit about who I am and why I might have some information useful to the committee.
I am a physician and epidemiologist whose research is in the field of occupational health. I am currently tripartite chair of occupational health in the faculty of medicine at the University of Alberta.
Although my research covers a wide range of topics, two periods of research are particularly relevant to the work of this committee.
First is the research I carried out some 30 years ago as associate director of the program “femmes au travail” at the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail. This program studied 56,000 women interviewed immediately after a live birth, still birth, or spontaneous abortion in 11 Montreal hospitals in 1982 to 1984. The evidence from that study has provided much of the data in which the operation of the retrait préventif, the protective withdrawal from work during pregnancy, has been based. Alison McDonald, who led the program, died some years ago, but I'd be happy to answer any of the committee's questions on that project, its conclusions, and its impacts.
The second period of research is the work I've done in Alberta on the employment of tradeswomen and tradesmen, particularly those in the welding and electrical trades. This research was undertaken because of concerns about the effects, on the unborn child, of work as a welder during pregnancy. In Alberta, where there was a shortage of skilled workers during the boom cycle of the oil and gas industry, women, who were still a small minority, were increasingly entering welding apprenticeships, so we believed we could recruit sufficient numbers to reach a clear conclusion about whether the unborn child was affected and, if so, the exposures responsible.
We recruited 446 female welders and 440 women in the electrical trades from across Canada. For comparison of the effects of work in these trades on the health of the workers rather than the child, we also recruited male welders and electricians from Alberta. This study is still ongoing. We follow the subjects up to five years, but it will be completed during the next nine months. We are aiming to collect 360 pregnancies while the women are in the study, and as of yesterday, we've been informed of 344—181 in welders and 163 in electricians. We will produce a report next May on the findings from these recent pregnancies.
Meanwhile, we have been looking at pregnancies completed before the women joined the study, and it appears that working in either trade, either as an electrician or as a welder, at the start of pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. It is also clear that few women in these trades continue in trades work to the end of the pregnancy; 80% had stopped work in the trade by 28 weeks, with welders stopping trade work much earlier than those in the electrical trades. Overall, 43% of the pregnant welders and 69% of the pregnant women in electrical work had been reassigned or found work outside the trade during their pregnancy.
From both these studies, I believe there's good evidence that physically demanding work in pregnancy may be harmful to the unborn child, and in some circumstances, to the health of the mother.
Therefore, I support the intent to consult on the development of a national maternity assistance program. I would give a caution that any measures put in place must not lead to discrimination against women in the trades. The aim of occupational health is to make the workplace safe for everyone—women, including pregnant women, as well as men.
Our current study on which I'd be most happy to answer questions was set up to identify modifiable workplace exposures, and in discussion with Dan Tadic and others, to make recommendations about changes that will make the workplace safe for women, men, and indeed, for pregnant women.