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Health and safety at work for new and expectant mothers
Being a new or expectant mother does not prevent you from working. It does mean, however, that your employer must protect you from any health and safety risks to you or your child. Read on for information about the laws protecting you from risks and advice about how to raise concerns.
If you’re a pregnant employee, or have recently had a baby, your employer is required by law to ensure your health and safety protection, regardless of whether you work full-time or part-time. Your entitlement to protection is not dependent on how long you have been in your job.
All employers must carry out a workplace risk assessment of the risks to their employees at work, as well as the risks to visitors, contractors and anybody else who comes to the workplace. 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 specific risk assessment.
The specific risk assessment must address any processes, conditions, physical, biological and chemical agents which could put at risk pregnant women, mothers who have given birth in the last six months and mothers who are breastfeeding babies of any age. It also includes women who have had a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
If there are any women of childbearing age in a work place, and there is even a chance that their work could jeopardise their health, a specific risk assessment must be carried out by the employer.
Have we made that clear? Good. Then let’s move on to the details.
Health and safety assessments for pregnant women and new mums
An employer’s specific duty of care for a pregnant employee comes into effect when informed of your pregnancy in writing. 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 consult 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 their duty to take action to protect your health and safety and you will need to produce a medical certificate if your employer asks to see one.
There isn’t a clear legal right to an individual risk assessment, but it is good practice to carry out an assessment of your individual workplace. In most cases your employer will need to meet with you to discuss any concerns and to decide on reasonable adjustments.
Your employer must take into account any medical advice from your GP or midwife about your health and adjust your working conditions accordingly. Be clear and give details of any pregnancy related medical conditions affecting you (these could include high blood pressure or a history of miscarriage).
The risks can alter as your pregnancy progresses. The Health and Safety Executive advises that your employer should regularly monitor and review any adjustments, to take into account possible risks that may occur at different stages of your pregnancy.
Health and safety risks to pregnant women and new mums at work
Below is a list of the sort of risks that all employers should be eliminating from pregnant employees’ work. It is not exhaustive and there could be risks that are specific to you (as mentioned above).
- Lifting/carrying of heavy loads
- Standing or sitting for long periods of time
- Posture and general comfort at work stations
- Is there a threat of violence in the workplace?
- Exposure to infectious diseases
- Exposure to strong or nauseating smells
Unhealthy workplace conditions
- Work-related stress
- Working alone
- Working at heights
- Long working hours
- Excessive noise
- Inadequate hygiene facilities
- Poor ventilation. Is there enough of it?
- Temperature – too hot? Too cold?
- Travel. Does your work involve a long commute? If so, could you work from home? Do you travel for meetings and other work engagements? If so, would it be better for somebody else to cover these duties temporarily?
- Toxic chemicals
- Radioactive material
- Carbon monoxide
What action should an employer take to remove risks to you or your unborn child once you have told them you are pregnant?
The first thing your employer has to do is to take reasonable action to remove the risk. For example, if your job involves 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 as simple as allowing you more breaks in your working day. It’s likely that you will need to go to the toilet more, as it’s important during pregnancy to increase your intake of fluids.
If there is no obvious way to remove a 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. For example, if you work somewhere noisy, your employer could be expected to move you into a quieter room, but not to rent new premises if that turned out to be the only way of getting round the noise problem.
If it’s not possible to avoid the risks by making reasonable adjustments to your work, your employer should consider whether there is a suitable alternative job that you could do (on the same terms and conditions). This should involve a similar type of work and should be suitable for you in terms of your normal hours and place of work. For example, if you usually work Monday to Wednesday for childcare reasons, it would not be suitable alternative work if your employer offered you work on Thursdays or Fridays.
If there is no suitable alternative work, you are entitled to be suspended on full pay for as long as the health and safety risks remain. You are not entitled to be paid if you unreasonably refuse an offer of suitable alternative work.
Health and safety protection at work for new mothers
If you’re still breastfeeding when you return to work, you should inform your employer of this in writing. Your employer isn’t bound by law to give you paid breaks for breastfeeding/expressing milk but they must ensure that no part of your work puts at risk the health of you or your baby.
Your employer must make reasonable changes to your working conditions or hours. This might include allowing you to work shorter shifts, taking extra breaks to express milk or cutting out night shifts and trips that involve overnight stays.
Suspension from work while pregnant or a new mum
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. You are entitled to your normal wages during the period of suspension. During a maternity suspension you have all the same rights in respect of your job that you would have had if you were working.
If you are suspended on health and safety grounds because of your pregnancy, your employer is entitled to trigger your maternity leave and pay automatically from the start of the fourth week before your expected week of childbirth.
Agency workers – health and safety protection for new and expectant mothers
If you work through an agency, then your employer’s obligations to take action to protect your health and safety still apply. If there is a risk in your workplace, you should notify the person for whom you are working (i.e. the end-user, not the agency) of your pregnancy in writing and they will need to make any adjustments that are reasonable, such as altering your hours of work or working conditions.
If the employer (end-user) is not able to make reasonable adjustments to avoid the health and safety risks, and you have been employed for at least continuous 12 weeks with the same employer, the agency must 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 suspend you on full pay at your normal rate for the length of time that you would otherwise have worked at that workplace. You are not entitled to be paid if you unreasonably refuse an offer of suitable alternative work.
If you are suspended on health and safety grounds because of your pregnancy, your employer is entitled to trigger your Statutory Maternity Pay automatically from the start of the fourth week before your expected week of childbirth.
What if the assessment shows that there are risks to pregnant women and new mothers?
If the workplace risk assessment picks up any dangers 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, immediately.
What if my employer fails to protect my health and safety?
First, speak to your employer informally, highlighting the problems and suggesting practical solutions. If that doesn’t get you anywhere, put your concerns in writing, setting out what action you would like them to take to improve your working conditions during pregnancy.
At the same time, talk to your HR department, Safety Representative, Occupational Health Officer or trade union rep – if your workplace has these – for help and advice.
When putting your concerns in writing to your employer, include a letter from your GP or midwife and information on your health and safety rights. You can include information from the Health and Safety Executive.
If you think your employer is breaking the law, or that their failure to act has caused, or is likely to cause, significant harm, you could ask the Health and Safety Executive to investigate (for larger workplaces). You could also make a complaint to your local authority’s Environmental Health Officer (for smaller workplaces).
If you cannot resolve the issue with your employer, as a last resort you could make a complaint using your employer’s grievance procedure. You may be able to claim for loss of wages, detrimental treatment and pregnancy discrimination in an employment tribunal. You should seek advice promptly because time limits in the employment tribunal are very short (usually three months, less one day, from your employer's failure). Contact ACAS Early Conciliation, within the time limit, on 0300 123 11 00.
You may also have a personal injury 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. You should seek specialist legal advice on this immediately.
For further advice and information
Healthy and Safety Executive – A guide for new and expectant mothers who work
Maternity Action – Health and safety during pregnancy and on return to work
Acas helpline (0300 123 1100) – Free and impartial advice