New and expectant mothers

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to carry out formal assessments of any risks to new or expectant mothers in the workplace. Risks include those to the unborn child or to the child who is being breastfed.

The risk assessment should be done once the employer has been notified in writing that the employee is pregnant, has given birth in the previous six months or is breastfeeding. The employer can request, in writing, a certificate from a doctor or midwife confirming the pregnancy. The Health and safety Executive (HSE) says it is important for women workers to inform their employers in writing that they are pregnant, have given birth in the previous six months or are breastfeeding as early as possible.

As every pregnancy is different, it is advisable that a separate risk assessment be made for each employee who is pregnant. The assessment must be carried out by a competent person, who is able to take account of all relevant information.

According to the HSE, the following risks to health should be avoided:

  • lifting heavy loads

  • working in confined spaces

  • working at unsuitable (computer) workstations

  • working in stressful or violent environments

  • exposure to chemical and other harmful agents, such as lead.

Checklist of questions for the risk assessment

  1. Is extra help being offered with lifting?

  2. Has the staff member consulted her doctor with regard to possible exposure to certain viruses, such as rubella or chickenpox?

  3. How much time does she spend working at a computer?

  4. Is she vulnerable to physical assault by pupils/students, parents or other members of the public?

  5. Are the toilet and rest facilities suitable?

  6. Is workload causing stress?

  7. Does she ordinarily work with chemicals or other hazardous substances?

If it is not reasonably practicable to prevent exposure to hazards, the employer should introduce measures to control the risks. Changes in working conditions or suitable alternative work may be considered.

It may be necessary to suspend the employee on the grounds of pregnancy if this is not possible. However, the employee must continue to receive terms and conditions that are no less favourable than her normal terms and conditions, eg she should receive the same salary and other benefits, such as pension contributions.

Moreover, if an employer suspends an employee on maternity grounds to avoid a health and safety risk, they must provide evidence of the risk and show that less drastic measures would not be sufficient.

Apart from the risks listed above, there are other pregnancy-related problems that may have an impact on work, the effects of which may have to be kept under review.

Other pregnancy-related health issues

Morning sickness: although it tends to occur mainly during the first few months of pregnancy, it may last throughout it. Breaks from work may have to be more frequent. Working in close proximity to toilet facilities is desirable in any event, as frequency of visits to the toilet often increases. There should be somewhere for the employee to lie down if she is feeling nauseous.

Backache: hormonal and/or postural changes during pregnancy often cause backache. Lifting of heavy or awkward loads should be avoided, as risks of miscarriage and premature birth may be increased.

Varicose veins/swollen ankles and feet: long periods of standing should be avoided. Employers should ensure that suitable seating is provided, and that employees are able to rest with their feet raised and take frequent breaks.

High blood pressure: this is sometimes problematic in the latter stages of pregnancy. Stressful work situations should be avoided.

Employers who breach their duties under health and safety legislation risk prosecution by the HSE. They could also be taken to an Employment Tribunal, which has ruled that an employer's failure to carry out risk assessments may amount to sex discrimination. A claim for sex discrimination must be made within three months of the date on which the act complained of took place.

Need further advice?

Your first point of contact is your ATL rep in your school or college. Your local ATL branch is also available to help with queries, or you can contact ATL's member advisors on tel: 020 7930 6441 or email us. Please have your membership number to hand when telephoning and include it with any correspondence - this will help us to answer your query more quickly.

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