Slowly, but surely, women are making inroads into the Canadian construction industry. In June 2023, there were 226,900 women working in the Canadian construction sector, according to BuildForce Canada.
In recent years, construction has attracted more women, seeing them as an untapped demographic that can help mitigate the industry’s labour shortage. However, as more women don hard hats and head to the jobsite, it’s become obvious that some jobs bear special consideration when it comes to pregnancy.
“There is an enormous demand for skilled trades in this country and we see women as essential,” she said. “We need to take a hard look at what we can do to attract and retain women, and that means ensuring all women have access to a safe and healthy worksite.”
During pregnancy, that may mean making accommodations for a woman’s changing physical condition, which employers are mandated to do.
“Every pregnant woman and her workplace are different, and need to be approached differently,” said Buratynski. “Accommodation measures to support pregnant women may include restricting heavy lifting, time off for medical appointments, making changes to work schedules or to physical locations and workspaces, permitting more bathroom breaks or providing seating to rest on during the day. Employers and employees need to understand the potential risks. We all play a role to make sure a construction workplace is safe.”
On top of some of the more common-sense accommodations, Buratynski points out that exposure to hazardous chemicals, working in tight spaces and around moving equipment could pose additional risks. She says employers must look at a worker’s entire day and what tasks they are doing to see which ones may need to be passed off.
“It’s all about assessing the environment, the risks and the tasks involved,” she said. “There’s no doubt you need open communication throughout a woman’s pregnancy. The employer and the employee should keep up a dialogue about how things are going.”
Legal obligations for employers
“Whatever the need is, the employee must let the employer know the issues they are experiencing,” she said. “Usually, the employee comes to the table with something from their doctor outlining their limitations. Now, it’s on the employer to figure out the options in terms of accommodation. The employer should ask themselves, ‘Based on these limitations, what are some things I can do to allow this employee to perform their duties?’”
Sometimes, employers make the mistake of assuming a worker will need accommodation without consulting them first.
“That’s a big mistake,” said Taylor. “Don’t make assumptions about what the employee needs. Treat each individual as a unique person going through this experience.”
She says employers must understand their legal obligations and liabilities. For example, in Ontario, most pregnant workers are covered under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA), which provides job protection during pregnancy and parental leave. When they return from leave, in most cases, employees must be reinstated to the same position they occupied before they left or, if that position no longer exists, to a comparable role.
In addition to the ESA, pregnant workers are protected by Ontario’s Human Rights Code. This legislation prohibits discrimination based on gender, which includes pregnancy, and also establishes an employer’s duty to accommodate a pregnant worker up to the point of “undue hardship” – which Taylor says is a very high standard to meet. Essentially, the employer must prove that providing a given accommodation will present a health and safety risk in the workplace, or that it will be prohibitively expensive.
“When we’re talking about accommodation for pregnant workers, it really depends on the person,” she said. “Every person will have different restrictions and limitations that could affect their jobs. Plus, there is the nature of the job environment – every job will present different hazards or potential barriers that could impact a pregnant worker’s ability to perform their job.”
Finally, the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act also protects workers to ensure Ontario workplaces are safe and healthy. Employers must provide workers with a safe working environment, which would include being aware of and keeping employees safe from hazards. This involves ensuring pregnant workers are sufficiently protected from hazards that may be present in the work environment.
No matter where an employee works in Canada, they will be protected under some form of similar provincial or federal workplace legislation. When it comes to accommodation, employers must be accommodating.
“Some things may be more obvious or common, like providing a pregnant worker with time off for medical appointments,” said Taylor. “But once you get into specific requests for accommodation, that’s when you will probably want some kind of supporting documentation from a doctor confirming what the employee’s restrictions and limitations are.”
Again, it’s important to avoid singling someone out due to their pregnancy. However, employers can stay alert to signs that an employee is struggling or their performance is changing.
“If they notice something, they should approach the employee and check in to see if they need any assistance or support. Employers may benefit from having a policy that encourages people to disclose when they need accommodation and pregnancy could be an example. Reassure your workers that they won’t be penalized for sharing what is happening with them.”
It’s also a good idea to have a more general policy in place that outlines a commitment to a respectful workplace, an open-door mentality and honest communication.
“If you want a diverse team, then these are issues you need to consider,” said Taylor. “The benefits of a diverse team are quite remarkable in terms of fresh ideas in your establishment. So, there is a practical aspect, in that, legally-speaking, as an employer you have certain obligations at law to comply with, but there is also a growth aspect for your company.”
Creating safe, inclusive workplaces
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes good health and safety practices in the workplace. It provides credible and relevant tools and resources to improve workplace health and safety programs.
Riane Marrs, an occupational health and safety specialist with CCOHS, says pregnant workers should consult their doctor about jobsite risks.
“As soon as they realize they are pregnant, they should speak to their health care provider about the job and the tasks they do, since some hazards may have an increased risk when pregnant,” she said. “Some accommodations or modifications may have to start right away depending on the risks associated with the worker’s job. For example, pregnant workers have a lower radiation dose limit – those exposed to radiation may have a responsibility to inform their employer.”
Once advised of a pregnancy, it is the employer’s responsibility to perform a comprehensive risk assessment. Some actions that may need to be modified for pregnant women include heavy lifting, bending and twisting, operating heavy vibrating machinery, excessive noise, working with chemicals and anything else that puts a strain on the body.
Marrs says that employers may also need to limit prolonged standing on the job and allow more time for rest, hydration, meal breaks and bathroom breaks. Other factors could include time off for medical appointments, reduced shifts and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) that fits a worker’s changing body.
“A pregnant person’s body can go through many changes at each stage of their pregnancy,” she said. “These changes can make them more at-risk to experience health effects from being exposed to hazards. It’s very important that accommodations adapt and change as the pregnancy progresses. Workers should ask for accommodations if they can’t do their job safely or if they have any health concerns.”
Team leaders can help by encouraging breaks and making sure there is access to water as well as toilet and washing facilities, and helping to source and provide PPE that fits properly.
Employers who are looking to take a more proactive approach to protecting pregnant workers could incorporate pregnancy into their occupational health and safety programs.
“The program would identify the hazards and risks associated with each job and how the work could be modified for pregnant workers, depending on their circumstances,” said Marrs. “The company should consider pregnancy when developing occupational health and safety policies, and any policy that addresses absences, sick leave or flexible work. These policies and procedures should be made available to all workers during the onboarding process.”
At the end of the day, Marrs advises pregnant workers to listen to their bodies and take care of themselves, both physically and mentally.
“It’s in the employers’ best interest to support pregnant workers,” she said. “By fostering an environment where workers feel comfortable sharing their pregnancy, and they know that they’ll be supported with time off for medical appointments, breaks and modified work, employers can really create an inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued.”