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Research indicates employers are failing to take pregnant workers' health seriously

Detailed research conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into the experience of mothers at work has found that 41% of pregnant workers felt their work risked their health.

Mothers said their employers were less likely to tackle those risks they had identified and almost two in five said it led to them taking maternity leave earlier than they wanted and more than a quarter taking sick leave. Plus, one in five of these mothers said they left because the risks were not resolved - 4% of all mothers.

This is a bleak picture. Employers can and should do better.

What risk assessments are necessary?

You have a duty to protect the health and safety of all your staff and there are special duties that apply in respect of new or expectant mothers. 

You have two duties: The first is to undertake a general risk assessment and to identify any risks your staff may be exposed to.  Risk refers to the exposure of some sort of harm or danger, and an assessment is an evaluation of when that risk is likely to occur and what its consequences will be for the pregnant employee (or an employee of childbearing age). 

The legislation does not contemplate risks that are “trivial or fanciful”, or aim to create an environment that is entirely risk free.  Instead it relates to situations where there is a material risk to health and safety, which any reasonable person would appreciate and take steps to guard against.

If your organisation employs at least one women of childbearing age, the risk assessment should identify any particular risks that pregnant or new mothers might be exposed to.  This is a sort of “pre‑emptive” risk assessment.  

Potential hazards for new or expectant mothers include; long working hours, working alone, inadequate hygiene facilities, noise, manual handling, exposure to strong or nauseating smells, prolonged standing or sitting, as well as more obvious risks such as exposure to substances such as lead, organic solvents and pesticides or infectious diseases. 

Once a member of staff has formally notified you that she is pregnant, has given birth within the last six months, or is breastfeeding, you should conduct a specific risk assessment for that individual and take into account any medical evidence they have received (even if your general risk assessment hasn't identified any specific risks). We recommend you do this with the employee so you can address any particular problems or concerns.  If risks are exposed, you should take reasonable measures to avoid them.  But, if you can't avoid the risk you must:

  • Alter the employee’s working conditions or hours of work to avoid any significant risk.
  • Where it is not reasonable to alter working conditions or hours, or doing so would not avoid the risk, to offer suitable alternative work on terms that are not “substantially less favourable”. 
  • Where suitable alternative work is not available, or the employee reasonably refuses it, to suspend the employee on full pay.

The law doesn't require you to eliminate risk entirely - but you are expected to reduce it to the lowest acceptable limit. For example, it might be appropriate to allow a woman to work from home to help to alleviate her symptoms if she has a long commute which is aggravating her condition and/or allow her longer rest breaks.  

Need more information?

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Ros Bragg, director of charity Maternity Action, said: “We know from the women that call our advice line that too many employers are failing to take the health and safety of pregnant and breastfeeding women in the workplace seriously.

“As a result, we know that many women end up having to choose between risking their own health or that of their baby, going off sick, or leaving their job altogether.””