Regardless of your position, occupational hazards exist when working in the operating room. Normally these things aren't given too much thought, but when my choices suddenly affected another developing life, it caused me to pause and contemplate these hazards on a deeper level. Unfortunately, studies on pregnant healthcare workers (and other occupations) are difficult to interpret due to the fact that they predominantly consist of retrospective cohort data rife with selection and recall bias or animal studies of direct exposure to substances. Nevertheless, here is a list of some things to consider when working pregnant in the operating room or hospital setting:
Anesthetic Gases. While every effort is made to avoid elective surgery during pregnancy, even pregnant women need to have general anesthesia under urgent circumstances; there is no evidence that gases administered at concentrations appropriate for general anesthesia cause fetal harm. Thus, sub-anesthetic levels that would be passively inhaled in an occupational capacity should theoretically be safe as well. That being said, it is generally recommended that pregnant women in the OR avoid inhalation of the gases when possible. We facilitate this by using ventilator circuits with scrubbing systems and taking care to turn off anesthetic gases if the circuit is open to air for a period of time (such as between mask ventilation and intubation). This is mostly routine practice regardless of pregnancy status.
Methylmethacrylate. MMA is a common ingredient in cement mixtures for joint prosthetics. When mixed, it forms a strong scent which dissipates over a number of minutes as the mixture cures. Studies, which have mainly occurred in animal models, reveal mixed results in terms of impact on fetal development. As a pregnant provider, your choices are to not work on cases using MMA, ask the scrub mixing the cement to use a vacuum device to remove the fumes, or temporarily leave the room during the mixing process. In one human study, MMA was not found above a 0.5 ppm level in breast milk of surgeons who utilized vacuum mixing devices. At our institution, the use of these devices is mixed amongst surgery personnel, but local suction can also be easily employed. If I am in a joint room and my patient is stable, I elect to step into the adjacent substerile core (which has a window to the operating room) for a few brief minutes while the mixing occurs. However, I did have a recent case where the patient was very unstable and I could not leave the room or easily turn the case over to another provider temporarily. After that experience, the scheduler changed me to a different OR.
Radiation. Discussed briefly in my previous Pregnant in the OR post, radiation is commonly used during OR procedures such as orthopedic repairs, gastrointestinal explorations, interventional pain management, interventional radiology, angiography, line placement... I could go on. For radiation, potential harmful effects are directly related to the dose of exposure. The CDC website has a table of radiation doses with corresponding maternal/fetal risks at different gestational ages. At doses higher than 50 rads, risks range from failure of implantation and miscarriage at early stages to growth retardation, mental delay, and increased risk of cancer at later stages. As with general anesthesia, pregnant women themselves must occasionally undergo irradiative procedures, but care is always taken to balance risks with benefits. In addition, protective shielding goes a long way to reduce exposure. Even in an occupational capacity we wear protective lead garments during periods of radiation. Wearing these and standing at least 6 feet away from the beam will decrease the exposure by more than 99%. However, the garments must encircle the body and not just cover the front of the body in apron form. This is especially important for anesthesiologists, who often turn their backs to the OR table to gather drugs or supplies, etc. And during my pregnancy, I have actively avoided assignments that involve continuous use of fluoroscopy (such as cath lab, GI lab, and interventional vascular or radiology).
Infection. It goes without saying that universal precautions need to be followed by everyone, but there are wider implications and possible sequelae if a pregnant woman contracts an infectious disease while working in the OR. Discussing the details of this would be beyond the scope of this article, but the gist is that potentially teratogenic effects of certain microbes and their treatments and/or long-term transmission of viral infections to the fetus such as HIV or HCV are considerations that should provide pause and vigilance when employing personal protection.
Stress. This is the most difficult "hazard" to avoid. Theoretically, emotional and physical stress can cause neuroendocrine and cardiovascular alterations that could affect fetal physiology and hence possible outcomes. Limited studies implicate longer working hours, night shift work, prolonged standing, and physical work as risk factors for preterm birth, SGA infants and miscarriage. It must also be mentioned, especially for trainees, that the financial burden of NOT working during pregnancy can cause significant stress in itself. Some women might choose to take a lighter load or less frequent call shifts during pregnancy, if possible.
I have mitigated many of these hazards during my pregnancy by notifying the schedulers early of my status, so that they could avoid giving me assignments with increased exposure as much as possible. In terms of stress, my job has no call duties, so long and tiring hours have usually not been an issue. Not everyone can be as lucky, but vigilance to self-care postcall and adequate hydration during call can help.
For readers who have been pregnant during hospital or OR duties, did you encounter any other hazards at work? What were your experiences trying to avoid them? Share your thoughts with us here!
Keen RR et al. Occupational Hazards to the Pregnant Orthopaedic Surgeon. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2011;93:e141(1-5).
Fowler JR and L Culpepper. Working During Pregnancy. UpToDate, 2015.
Radiation and Pregnancy: A Fact Sheet for Clinicians. http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/prenatalphysician.asp