Fetus-protection ruling prompts BG&E to review policies Local firms take another look at their employment rules for women

March 21, 1991|By Michelle Singletary and Georgia Marudas | Michelle Singletary and Georgia Marudas,Evening Sun Staff

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is reviewing its policy regarding female workers in the wake of a landmark sex-discrimination decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that affects millions of women.

In a suit against a battery manufacturer that banned women from jobs that would have exposed them to lead, the court ruled unanimously yesterday that employers may not ban women of child-bearing age from jobs involving potential health hazards.

Five of the court's nine members further held that so-called "fetal protection" employment policies violate the civil rights laws that forbid job discrimination against women on the basis of sex or pregnancy.

John A. Metzger, a spokesman for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., says the high court decision is being studied by the utility company's legal department and could require BG&E to "revisit our policy."

"We will of course fully comply with the Supreme Court decision," he said today, "and are in the process of evaluating what application it may have on various jobs within the company. It seems to apply to persons in numerous areas of work."

BG&E's policy, in effect since 1982, was set by the medical department, Metzger said, adding that he had not yet been able to determine just what jobs are affected and what the specifics of the policy are.

Although General Motors has fetal protection policies at some facilities such as battery plants, there are none at GM's minivan assembly plant here.

Our operations are not the kind that would create a hazardous exposure," says Terry Youngerman, spokesman at the Broening Highway plant.

Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of the court's historic 1973 decision that women have a constitutionally protected right to choose an abortion, also wrote the 22-page ruling striking down the fetal-protection policies.

The case involved Johnson Controls Inc., a Milwaukee maker of building control systems, batteries and other products. The firm bans women up to age 50 from jobs in its factories because they might be exposed to high levels of lead, a recognized health hazard.

Attorneys for the United Auto Workers union, which represented the female employees at the company, had challenged the policy in court.

Blackmun said the law "mandates that decisions about the welfare of future children be left to the parents who conceive, bear, support and raise them rather than to the employers who hire those parents or to the courts."

Defending its policy, the Johnson company said it was seeking to protect the workers' children from birth defects and argued that businesses could face huge damages if women workers gave birth to deformed children.

But Blackmun brushed aside those concerns, holding that businesses could not be held liable for huge damage claims if they simply informed women workers of the risks and did not act negligently.

W.R. Grace & Co. takes that approach, company spokesman Edward F. Heymann says. Grace employs 700 people in the Baltimore area and has several operations in Maryland, including its Davison Chemical Division in Curtis Bay. The Baltimore plant manufacturers inorganic chemicals, he says.

The company encourages its female workers to let supervisors know when they become pregnant so that the areas in which the women work can be checked out. Heymann says that, although areas are checked for harmful substances, the company does not manufacture any chemicals that are questionable regarding fetal toxicity.

Once the worker's area is checked, the information is sent to the company's medical facility in Curtis Bay and then to its director of toxicology in Lexington, Mass. Ultimately, the information is given to the female employee so that she can consult her physician, he says.

If the worker feels she should move to a safer working environment, Heymann says, she is accommodated without loss wages or position. After her pregnancy she may return to her position, he says. Each employee is handled on a case-by-case basis, he says.

"We have equal policies across the board and the only time we get involved is when the women contact us," he says.

The director of the Maryland Human Relations Commission Jennifer Burdick, says the commission has not had any complaints about fetal protection policies.

"We have always taken the position that it be a violation of Maryland law," she says.

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