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Reader Question #27: The intern is pregnant and doesn’t want to tell the bosses, which would be cool, except we work with toxic stuff in a chemical research lab.

Normally about this time I’d be posting links to the Shameless Self Promotion Sunday thread, but it looks like that won’t be necessary this week. Welcome Feministe and Manboobz readers!  I am enjoying your fine and well-spelled comments.  I would love to hear more thoughts on how we socialize both men and women to say “no” and to respond to “no.”  And I’m always looking for questions – email me at welcometoawkwardtown@gmail.com.

Also, maybe some of you can help me with a doozy of a reader question.  I’m especially interested in hearing from higher ed people, occupational health and safety people, lawyers, etc.  Here we go:

Hi,

I have a work-related question that is gnawing at me, and since you tackle those, I figured I’d give it a shot. I work in a chemistry research lab with a number of rather nasty chemicals. We have several undergrad interns who are finishing up their projects, and one of them has recently announced that she’s pregnant to the entire lab minus the people in charge. She goes on like nothing is going on, and she’s still doing experiments with the aforementioned dangerous products.

The reason she doesn’t want to tell the people in charge at the lab is that her immediate boss is also her professor, who still needs to grade one of her exams. The professor in question is a horrible woman and nobody would put it past her to fail the student for being pregnant. Please keep in mind that this is all happening in a country where women’s rights are not as well-defended as in the US, and there isn’t much of a structure to help the student with her problems with the professor. However, if the baby is born with a problem due to exposure to dangerous chemicals, the lab could still be held liable for that.

The pregnant student has made us swear that we wouldn’t tell the bosses behind her back, but considering the number of people who know, there is bound to be a slip-up soon. Furthermore, she has made the rest of the lab extremely uncomfortable with her reckless experimenting, and we’ve more of less decided to sit her down and let her know that what she’s doing is extremely dangerous for her child (we have all already told her this, but so far she hasn’t listened).

My position in this is very difficult in this. I’m a post doc, which means I’m not a student, but I’m not part of management either. I need to think about my relationship with my boss, which I want to be as good as possible (my boss is also the boss of the professor in question – I don’t really work with her, but I don’t want to be on her bad side either). She doesn’t seem to care about what impression she leaves behind once she leaves the lab in a few months, but I’m staying behind and I don’t want this to turn against me. I want to tell the student that if she doesn’t tell her boss soon, I’ll tell my boss.

I know that this is a very difficult ethical question, and I know that I’m slipping into woman-as-vessel territory (and I’m not going to even speculate on the exam problem), but I don’t think that “it goes against my political beliefs to tell pregnant women not to do something” is going to cut it as an excuse when I’m asked if I knew about this, and I don’t want to lie to my boss. Do you have any advice on how not to be a concern troll and how to handle the situation in order to minimize the drama?

Thanks for your attention,
Clever Name Here

Dear Clever Name:

A lot of this stuff is above my pay grade.  I have no legal or occupational health and safety expertise.  I do teach at a college, and if this were one of my students I would feel justified in telling the student “You have put me in a terrible position, and I am obligated to tell my boss about this so that we can make sure that you are served well and also to protect the school in case of complications,” and then referring the student to my boss and/or student services, etc. but I am in the U.S. and there are some clear guidelines and protections available that you and your intern might not have.  I haven’t had to face this with pregnant students (though that does come up every other semester or so – Thanks, Abstinence Only Education!  You Don’t Work At All And Should Be Completely De-funded and Called Out For Being A Crock of Shit!) but I have had a student with some obvious and scary health problems who needed to be referred to some services so (s)he didn’t do things like stop breathing or have fainting spells and seizures in my class.

Your intern has put all of you in a terrible position.  I think it is unethical to ask other people to keep secrets like this.  If she wanted her pregnancy to be secret, she could have just not told anyone at work.   She could have continued work, dealt with her (likely very legitimate fears) that her career would be derailed by the pregnancy by finishing out the term, and no one would be the wiser unless she started showing before the term is out, and the ethical/legal/medical issues would be moot because she never told you.

I completely respect your desire not to treat her as a vessel rather than an adult with agency and your desire not to be a concern troll, but by disclosing the pregnancy to the staff she put all of you in an ethical (and perhaps legal) pickle.  Also, someone who is an intern is by definition inexperienced in the workplace (or this particular workplace) and sometimes needs to be mentored/schooled by people up the chain.  I think you and the lab (your boss or her direct supervisor or some combination thereof) have a three-step approach here:

1.  The first step in any workplace conflict is to talk to the other person directly and ask them to stop the troublesome behavior.  If someone’s sexually harassing you, for instance, the first step isn’t to go to HR, the first step is to say “Please stop talking to me that way, I’m not interested and it makes me uncomfortable.”  Because HR’s first question will be “Did you ask the person to knock it off?” and you need to be able to say that you did, to remove the harasser’s plausible deniability that it was all a joke and that  (s)he had no idea that you objected to the behavior.

So talk to the intern directly:  “You put me in a terrible situation when you told me about your pregnancy and asked me to keep it secret. You made something that was none of my business my business, and you have jeopardized my working relationships if this all blows up and my boss finds out that I knew and lied for you.  I understand that your body and your decisions are entirely your own, and I understand your concerns about (professor) and finishing on time, but I recommend that you set up a meeting with my boss (professor’s boss) and talk about the best way to proceed.  Also, you need to stop asking people to lie for you – if you want something to be secret, just keep it secret – don’t put it on us.  There are serious ethical, safety, and legal issues at stake here that affect more people than just you.”  You can also say “I will not lie for you and I made a mistake when I agreed to.  I will not report you, but if anyone asks me – including your evil professor – I will tell them they should talk to you about that.” And you can also say “If you haven’t told my boss by x date, then I will inform her,” as your instincts are telling you to do.  I found some basic generic advice on how to tell your boss you are pregnant here.

Document that you had this conversation – type it up, date it, keep it somewhere – so that if everything blows up you can say “On (date), I recommended the intern inform management of her pregnancy due to serious safety issues.” And if your boss turns to you at that point, you can say “I told her to tell you,” and it won’t be a lie.

2.  Second, what are the legal/safety issues at stake?  I assume there is some kind of safety manual or training or orientation that everyone gets when they come to the lab before they start playing with the dangerous stuff, and that this employee knows exactly what the risks and necessary precautions are.  How has the lab dealt with pregnant employees in the past?  What kind of protocol is in place for this?  This probably isn’t your job to deliver, but it would be good if you knew exactly when and how the intern received this information at the start of her tenure and it would be good for the management to be able to document that they gave her this info.  It might be time for the lab to go over safety protocols with all interns and even all employees to make sure that everyone’s ass is covered.  Basically, you and/or the lab need to be able to say “We clearly inform all staff about the safety issues in working with these chemicals, and have x protocols in place for safety.  (Intern) was trained and informed on these dates and in the following ways.”  The fact that she’s a student and an intern makes this all the more hairy and I can’t comment further without knowing anything about the legal issues at stake and if that status means that the university stand in loco parentis* to their students.

3.  You CAN tell your boss.  This is what bosses are for.  “I don’t know if you know – (Intern) has informed us that she’s pregnant but asked us not to tell anyone for fear of being fired or failed out of the course.  I feel that this opens the lab up to a lot of legal and safety issues if she continues to work with (chemicals), can you sit her down for a chat and find some safe alternatives for her to carry on with her studies?

I hope some readers with more experience and training can weigh in, that’s pretty much what I can tell you – make sure she has the information she needs to make an informed safety decision for herself (and that the lab can document that they gave it to her), make sure you’ve told her directly what you think and that you won’t lie (and document that they told her), tell your boss if you feel it’s necessary – and then distance yourself from her.  You’ve done what you can, and while you are trying to respect her autonomy you also don’t have to be her conspirator or confidant in this.

*From what I understand, mostly from watching Law & Order, the question of whether a university stands ‘in place of the parents’ with students comes up in lawsuits all the time, with the parents saying “you should have prevented my child from doing x unsafe thing” and the school saying “your child is a legal adult who should have known better than to ____ (snort all the coke, become a high-priced call girl, etc.)”  Is this true in the real world or just at Hudson University?

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22 comments
  1. PrettyAmiable said:

    I wish I had something to add here, but I completely agree with your commentary. If I can add something, it’s document the conversation x eleventy11!!1!billion.If I were reading this advice column a few years ago, it might be the part that I skipped, but it’s really one of the most important bits.

  2. KarynJ said:

    The in place of parents’ thing definitely comes up, and it often goes against colleges in court, from my understanding. I work for a small liberal arts school and several years back we were ruled against when bad shit occurred due to students not locking their doors. For real. The students independently decided to leave all their doors unlocked without school knowledge. The school was told that it was their job to keep students safe from their own poor judgement. Colleges are expected to have systems in place that don’t allow students to make choices like that. So, of course, they now climb through windows, break the electronic cardswipers, etc. *sigh*

    • JenniferP said:

      I work in higher ed (as adjunct faculty) and while I would like health insurance, please, I would not want to have the job where I have to anticipate what dangerous fool antics college students will get up to and try to prevent those/make sure the school is legally covered. No, no, no. Scary hard job.

  3. Jeff said:

    It’s also worth noting that while the government in her country may not offer protections for pregnancy, her university’s policy might address this issue. Check the university’s non-discrimination policy – is pregnancy listed as protected?

  4. Veronica said:

    I’m bound to agree mostly with the first part of your advice, which is namely – it was irresponsible to make her problem everybody’s responsibility. That’s completely unfair to the staff and everyone around her. While she has my utmost sympathies as far as socialized sexism and the issues thereof go, it sounds like she did some serious work digging her own hole in this one.

    As far as the issue of teratogenic impact on the baby, exactly what kind of government body does the questioner’s country have analogous to the FDA/OSHA standards of the U.S.? What legal requirements do they carry for hazardous chemicals? In America, all businesses are required to have job safety and OSHA standards outlined for their workers, as well as MSDS resources. If he/she wants to directly face the intern in question about the issue, and the company has something similar to this on hand, use it. Prop up your arguments with actual data. Tell her to wake the hell up – if she plans on carrying this pregnancy to term, it’s not just about her anymore. There could be a child’s health at stake. I realize that she’s concerned about her future as an intern, but what about her future as the mother of a child?

    • JenniferP said:

      Thank you, person who knows way more than me! I knew there would be some science + policies + rules materials somewhere, but not where or what.

      • Veronica said:

        Not a problem. I just with I could give a more concise answer about the location of resources for the letter writer.

        While I don’t generally buy into the “pregnant women need coddling” stance, in this case, I do understand his/her/other’s concerns about the fetus. We have some pretty heavy duty regulations in pharmacy regarding some of the supplies we deal with; if Clever Name Here works in a heavy duty chemistry lab, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some serious risk involved just for your average, healthy adult, much less a pregnant one.

  5. NessieMonster said:

    OK, so I’m only a biochemistry PhD student and this is my first time commenting but I do have one thing to add.

    As part of having had the conversation you suggest, Clever Name should point the intern in the direction of the H&S co-ordinator. They could also speak to H&S first for specific advice re the dangerous chemicals. All the necessary info will be in the MSDS (material safety data sheets) and COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health)forms, if applicable.

    http://www.ilpi.com/msds/faq/parta.html#whatis

    http://www.hse.gov.uk/search/results.htm?q=pregnancy&sitesearch=&cx=015848178315289032903%3Akous-jano68&sa=Search&cof=FORID%3A11#1061 – this is UK specific but probably still useful.

    Other than that, I second what you’ve already said. Hope it helps!

    • JenniferP said:

      Handy specific advice from a Person Who Knows! Thank you!

  6. Jennifer said:

    I don’t know about non-US universities on the policies, so that makes it tricky for me. I mostly just keep thinking, “Why did this girl TELL EVERYONE?” Was it THAT important to get everyone to coo over her and say congratulations? Is she just dumb? Does she actually think she’s going to get away with this? ARGH!

    • JenniferP said:

      Oh, absolutely. If she wanted to keep it a secret, she could have kept it a secret. Since she didn’t keep it a secret, it’s not a secret.

    • Karen said:

      It’s a major facepalm that she told everyone, but I expect that if she’s terrified, the secret might have felt too big to keep. It’s a big burden to shoulder alone, and maybe she couldn’t help blabbing. She might also harbored a naive, crazy hope that someone would say “I have the solution, let me intervene here; your problems are over.”

      As someone who has experienced the terror of an unplanned pregnancy in college, I know that reason and judgment sometimes run for the fucking hills just when you need them most. It sucks that she unloaded on everyone, but it’s not a mystery to me why it happened.

  7. Jo said:

    I don’t know what dangerous substances the writer is talking about, and I surely don’t know the impact of every dangerous substance in the world. I will say that, as a pregnant woman in the US, the world is FULL of well meaning strangers who seem to feel it is their duty to tell me how to live my life. Here in the US, the list of banned-while-pregnant substances includes alcohol, caffeine, sliced turkey, soft cheese, sushi, and ground meat/sausages, all of which are consumed in moderation with no ill effects in other parts of the world, and if one wants to eat anything other than raw spinach and boiled oats, with no salt, of course, one is risking a Dirty Look. My first thought is to wonder the extent to which the writer knows exactly what the intern is using and the effects it may have on the fetus, versus having a knee jerk “OMG get the preggo to safety!” reaction.

    • Clever Name Here said:

      Yes, the writer knows exactly what substances the intern is working with and also the kind of risk they come with. The writer completely agrees that keeping pregnant women from eating soft cheese is a major league overreaction. But there is a big difference between soft cheese and stuff that comes in a bottle with a skull on it and that you have to handle with a lab coat, rubber gloves, glasses and a mask on.

      • NessieMonster said:

        Very true that.

    • JenniferP said:

      Oh, yeah, it’s crazy here. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have your body be such public property (though as a fat person, I’m somewhat familiar with the totally inane unsolicited advice train). I feel like the letter writer wants to not be a concern troll and respect the intern’s personhood and agency, and also that the intern fucked up when she told people at work about her pregnancy (opening the place up to some legal issues) but asked them to keep it secret. If you want it secret, just keep it secret. If you want the workplace to accomodate you, use channels.

    • monsterzero said:

      I’m tending to agree with Jo here. I’m confused by “she has made the rest of the lab extremely uncomfortable with her reckless experimenting.” Is she actually violating safety protocols? If so, then report her for that. If not, then she’s just trying to do her job.

      Experimenting is what you do in a research lab, so I’m not clear on whether “reckless” means she’s huffing carbon tet for kicks, but the rest of the letter doesn’t seem to support that conclusion.

      If pregnant women have the right to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol (and I believe they do), then they should certainly have the right to work.

      • JenniferP said:

        If the pregnant woman were writing to me, I’d say something like:

        1) Make sure you know the risks of what you’re working with and that you’re making an informed decision.

        2) If you’ll complete your internship and course of study before you start to show, and you’re comfortable with the level of risk, don’t disclose the pregnancy to anyone (coworkers/bosses) – because it will open you up to consequences that you don’t want.

        (Also, if she didn’t want to have the baby right now because of school and potential risks, go ahead and terminate and circle back to motherhood when the timing is right).

        The Letter Writer could decide “Hey, this totally isn’t my business” – cool. She could also decide “Hey, I don’t have to keep this person’s secrets, especially if they will lead to a) legal complications at my workplace b) career complications FOR ME if I knew about these potential complications and did not tell anyone.”

        I think the intern should totally have the right to work, but I think it would not hurt the Letter Writer to a) advise her to tell management and b) make sure that they can document that they informed all the interns (again, INTERNS/STUDENTS – by definition less experienced and in need of mentoring) about the safety risks of working with stuff in a clear way to cover everyone’s ass in case of legal trouble.

  8. L. said:

    I am 100% a feminist, and I think the whole “don’t have a glass of wine don’t drink beer and FREAK OUT!” school of thought is 95% bullshit, but I’ve also done risk assessment and I’m a parent. That woman should not be working in that lab. It is just flat-out wrong to expose yourself to nasty chemicals while you’re pregnant. Even the not-so-nasty chemicals can be nasty enough to a developing fetus, and the early days of the pregnancy are the most vulnerable. Even very low-level exposure to certain chemicals (say…. mercury) could cause learning deficiencies. Your bullets sound good to me: definitely hit 1 and 2, but if that doesn’t work, Questioner, you gotta take it up the chain to 3 and beyond. I feel bad saying that because I don’t want this intern to get fired, and because I am not into to the woman-as-vessel thing either, but. The world of hurt the baby could be in for surpasses the potential risks for her, and the baby didn’t get a choice about any of this.

    • L. said:

      (Forgot to specify “when you’re pregnant” in the beer/wine/freak out part of my comment)

      • NessieMonster said:

        She totally can be working in the lab, it’s just a case of being *really* strict about safety precautions, and avoiding the use of any really nasty/dangerous to foetus chemicals. Where I work (biochemistry, so less risky than chemistry, generally) there are at least two women working while pregnant with no problems.

        It all comes down to which harmful chemicals the intern is working with and whether the risks can be properly controlled. If they can’t be then yes, the intern is being reckless, but if they can then there’s no reason why she should stop all together.

  9. mia said:

    i dunno. this woman is pregnant and she clearly knows the risks. it is not illegal for a woman to live her life as she sees fit while she is pregnant. it is totally up to her what level of risk she chooses to take and you may not like it, may not agree with it, but its not your call to make. it may be a huge mistake for her. but its HER mistake to make if she chooses.

    what exactly is the difference to your mind between a person who is not pregnant taking the risk and one who is? a pregnant woman who is hurt is no more or less deserving of concern than anyone else. foetal rights do not extend beyond those of the woman carrying it. yes, something may happen to affect the baby. but its not your baby, and its not your decision.

    if this is a legal issue, in that she may try to sue if she or the child are hurt, then absolutely she needs to sign some kind of documentation saying she knows the risks and is acting according to her conscience. otherwise – stop trying to police women based on concern for their unborn.

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