Pregnancy at work: risk assessments and suspensions
The law dealing with workplace risks to pregnant women and their babies is pretty stringent. All employers who employ women of childbearing age who have jobs which could put the mother or baby at risk are required to carry out a risk assessment.
So even if there are no pregnant women currently in the workplace, if there are any women of childbearing age and there is even a chance that the work that an employer does could cause a risk to them, a risk assessment must be done.
What if the assessment shows that there are risks?
If the risk assessment picks up any risks specific to pregnant women or their babies, then the employer must inform its employees (which can be done via the trade union, if there is one) of what those risks are.
Do things change if I tell my employer I'm pregnant?
When you tell your employer that you are pregnant (or have had a baby in the last six months, or that you are breastfeeding), your employer should go back to the risk assessment to see whether your specific work puts you or your baby at risk.
You have to notify your employer in writing to trigger the duty to conduct a specific risk assessment and you will need to produce a medical certificate if your employer asks to see one.
There is no set list of the sort of things that might have a negative impact on a pregnant woman, but the sort of things that should be looked at are:
- lifting/carrying of heavy loads
- standing or sitting for long periods of time
- exposure to infectious diseases
- exposure to substances such as lead, organic solvents and pesticides
- work-related stress
- working alone
- working at heights
- workstations and posture
- exposure to radioactive material
- threat of violence in the workplace
- long working hours
- excessively noisy workplaces
- inadequate hygiene facilities
- poor ventilation
- exposure to strong or nauseating smells
If the work that you do could put you or your unborn baby at risk then your employer is obliged to carry out a specific risk assessment in respect of you and your work. Sometimes that will be pretty straight forward but there may be occasions when your employer will have to take some specialist advice. And it is best practice to involve you in the risk assessment as your input is important. You should be informed of what risks have been identified and what steps your employer needs to take to address those risks.
What happens if the assessment shows that there are risks to you or your unborn child?
The first thing your employer has to do is try to remove the risk. So, for example, if your job involves a bit of heavy lifting then your boss should arrange for someone else to cover that for you, and could give you other duties instead. Sometimes the adjustment may be something as simple as allowing you more rest breaks.
If there is no obvious way to remove the risk, your employer will have to consider altering your working conditions and hours of work. But they only have to do what is reasonable to avoid the risk - so if you work somewhere incredibly noisy, for example, they could be expected to move you into a different room to work if that would be quieter, but not to rent new premises if that turned out to be the only way of getting round the problem.
They should also consider whether there is an alternative job that you could do (on the same terms and conditions) and if there is one it should be offered to you. You don't have to accept the job, but if you refuse to do something that was suitable for you, and are suspended as a result, you won't be paid whilst suspended.
Ultimately, if your job is dangerous because of your pregnancy (or the fact that you are a new mother or are breastfeeding), and there is no reasonable way around it, your employer has to suspend you for as long as it takes to avoid the risk to you and your baby. If this happens, you are entitled to your normal wages during the period of suspension (usually that won't include overtime, bonuses, and so on).
You also have all the same rights in respect of your job that you would have had if you were working, and are protected against your employer acting badly towards you as a result of having to carry out the risk assessment/modify your job or pay you whilst on suspension.
Agency workers and workplace risks
If you work through an agency, then the obligations concerning risk assessment, etc, still apply. If there is a risk in your workplace, then the person for whom you are working (i.e. the end-user, not the agency) will need to make any adjustments that are reasonable.
If it is not reasonable for them to make an adjustment then the agency should offer you suitable alternative work, if it is available, for the whole time that you would have been assigned to the original workplace.
If there is no suitable alternative work then your agency is obliged to pay you at your normal rate (generally not including overtime, bonuses, etc.) for the length of time that you would otherwise have worked at that workplace.
What if my employer doesn't comply with all these duties?
Obviously try and resolve the matter internally if you can, by way of your employer's grievance procedure if necessary. But if you cannot sort it out, you may have a valid claim to bring to an employment tribunal. You should seek advice promptly because time limits in the employment tribunal are very short (usually three months from your employer's failure). You may also have a claim in the ordinary courts if you suffer harm because of your employer's failure to carry out risk assessments or to do them properly.
Natasha Joffe and Lydia Seymour. Please have a look at our disclaimer and bear in mind that the information provided is no substitute for specific advice on your individual case.