Professor Sylvia Guendelman coauthors best ergonomics paper of 2016

April 28, 2017

Sylvia GuendelmanResearchers from UC Berkeley and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were recently honored with the 2017 Liberty Mutual Award, which is given annually to the paper published in the journal Ergonomics that best contributes to the advancement of the practice of ergonomics. The award recognizes their investigation of the association between exposure to biomechanical and organizational job stressors during pregnancy and employment continuity or withdrawal.

The Best Paper Award promotes excellence in safety and health research.  The award was established in 2005 by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety and the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF).  The editors of Ergonomics select the winner from all of the papers published in the journal over the given year. The award was presented 

“The U.S. is the only developed nation without a national paid maternity leave program for working women,” says Dr. Sylvia Guendelman, professor of Maternal and Child Health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the paper’s lead author. “Further, in the U.S. few pregnant workers take maternity leave prior to delivery.  We hope that our investigation draws increased attention to the unmet need for federal workplace ergonomic standards and universal access and increased utilization of paid antenatal leave in the United States.  We’re honored that our research paper won this prestigious award.”

Roger Haslam PhD, editor-in-chief of Ergonomics, accepts the 2017 Liberty Mutual Award on behalf of the study authors. Dr. Claire Dickinson, president of CIEHF, presented the award at the annual Ergonomics & Human Factors conference, held April 25-27 in Daventry, Northamptonshire, UK.

The winning paper, “Biomechanical and organisational stressors and associations with employment withdrawal among pregnant workers: evidence and implications,” was published in Ergonomics (Vol. 59, No. 12, pp. 1613-1624, 2016). Coauthors include and Alison Gemmill, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Demography, UC Berkeley, and CAPT Leslie A. MacDonald, Sc.D. of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The investigation was conducted in California, one of the few states that offers paid maternity leave to working women. Researchers examined employment pattern changes in 1,114 women during an entire pregnancy.  Some of the women were exposed to biomechanical job stressors, which included prolonged standing (>4 hours), lifting (>15 pounds daily) or bending at least 10 times per hour.  The women exposed to organizational stressors were employed in high effort-low rewards jobs and/or working outside a regular daytime shift (shiftwork). The researchers hypothesized that exposure to job stressors would be associated with employment withdrawal and that the types of employment withdrawal (antenatal leave or quitting) would differ among women who had work schedule accommodations.

At the beginning of pregnancy, a majority of participants (57%) were exposed to one or more biomechanical job stressors. Of these 33% were simultaneously exposed to one or more organizational stressors and 24% were not.  The data show that as pregnancy progressed, overall exposure prevalence declined.  Further, a higher proportion of women exposed to biomechanical job stressors withdrew from work compared with unexposed women.  The findings indicate that women actively seek opportunities to avoid or reduce exposure to biomechanical and organizational stressors throughout pregnancy.  However, only 2 in 5 women exposed to biomechanical stressors took antenatal leave, suggesting that pregnant workers may be cautious about participating in California’s antenatal leave program.

Sylvia Guendelman is Chair of the Maternal and Child Health Program at the School. She is author of over 130 publications focusing predominantly on the reproductive health of working women and immigrant women and children and is the recipient of numerous awards. For the last decade she has studied the relationship between stress, maternity leave and birth outcomes among working women. She serves as board member of California's Program Committee for March of Dimes, with whom she launched a Maternity Leave Initiative and previously served as Chair of the World Health Organization's Panel in Reproductive Health for the Americas between 2000 and 2007.

Owned and operated by Liberty Mutual Insurance, the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety is an internationally recognized safety and health research facility. The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, founded in 1949, is the professional body for researchers and practitioners in the field of ergonomics, with an international membership in excess of 1,700.