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A doctors' committee will examine extending maternity leave for women in jobs requiring strenuous physical effort, so that they can stop working in their ninth month of pregnancy.

The committee, set up by the Health Ministry's National Council for Women's Health, will consider extending maternity leave for women in strenuous physical jobs by a month, beginning at the last month of pregnancy.

"When a woman in the final weeks of pregnancy isn't sleeping at night, her posture is harmed and she tires rapidly. We must help women complete their pregnancy term for humanitarian reasons and if she needs rest, it should not cost her money or come at the expense of her vacation days," says Dr. Orly Tibon-Fisher of the Israeli Society of Occupational Medicine.

The committee was set up, among other reasons, for fear that strenuous work at the end of the pregnancy could increase the risk of premature childbirth and other complications, such as placental separation.

The jobs entitling to extended leave will include caretakers, assistants in day care centers, cleaners, women who arrange merchandise in supermarkets, hotel cleaners and women who work in farming, packing factories, industry, construction, safety and rescue services, post delivery, public transportation and those who operate heavy machinery.

An estimated 10,000-15,000 women out of 160,000 who give birth annually will be eligible for the extended leave.

The panel, headed by senior gynecologist Menachem Fisher, consists of 10 members including National Insurance Institute's chief doctor Mario Skolsky, representatives of the health, industry, trade, employment and health ministries, the Israel Woman's Network and the Manufacturers Association. The committee was formed following an increase in the number of women who ask doctors for sick leave in their final pregnancy weeks, after finding it difficult to do their work.

"A woman nine months pregnant has trouble carrying out several jobs involving effort and many ask doctors to authorize sick leave for them," says Hava Tabenkin, chair of the National Council for Women's Health. "Pregnancy is not a sickness and this is a white lie. It's important to make it clear in advance what jobs a pregnant woman cannot carry out in the last weeks of pregnancy."

The panel, which will start meeting next month, will submit its recommendations to the Health Ministry for approval.

"In recent years an increasing number of pregnant women find it impossible to continue working until the end of their pregnancy. This is a generation of women who are aware of their bodies are not prepared to strain themselves physically at the end of their pregnancy," says Tibon-Fisher.

A study published by the the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in December 2005 found no connection between physical effort at work and childbirth complications. However, it did find a 50 percent increased risk of premature childbirth among night-shift workers.

"Israel can show more generosity to its people by extending maternity leave and relieving the families, especially in view of the long maternity leave practiced in Europe," says committee head Fisher.

"A longer leave is necessary not only for women suffering from medical problems, who are eligible for bedrest, but for those who engage in strenuous work. It's in the national interest to advance the health and quality of life of the woman and baby, in view of the importance of the parents' role in the baby's first months," he says.