Health and Safety rights for pregnant women
Pregnancy itself is not an illness, but it can affect the things you can do. Employers who employ women of childbearing age have a duty to do a “general” health and safety assessment to identify risks to pregnant women. As soon as your employer has been informed in writing that you are pregnant (this can include a sick note for pregnancy-related illness), and a risk arising from your work has been identified, a personal health and safety assessment must be done for you. As every pregnancy is different, the assessment should be done in conjunction with you. There is a sample letter that you can use. We also compiled answers to frequently asked questions on the subject.
The assessment will look not at just the more obvious and dramatic risks, like heavy lifting and working with chemicals. The assessment looks at all risk to your and your unborn baby’s health.
It might be helpful to ask your doctor or midwife what risks there are for you; for example, some women’s ligaments soften making even light lifting a problem. For other women the issue might be the need to take frequent toilet breaks, or the kind of chair they use.
Once the risks have been identified, they must be eliminated if possible. For example, if you are at risk of back pain from standing for long periods, you should be offered a chair. You must be given information on the identified risk and what is going to be done about it. It may be that reducing your time at work would remove or reduce the risk; if so, your hours of work should be temporarily changed, if reasonable (if your hours are reduced, your pay should remain the same, so you should be paid for your normal working hours). If no adjustment or change to working hours will help, then you should be offered a suitable alternative job on similar terms and conditions, which is reasonable for you to do. Whether or not the alternative is reasonable for you to do depends on the type of work, the rate of pay, the hours and times of work and the location of the work.
Of course the alternative job must be safe for you to do. If there is no reasonable alternative job, or no safe job, you must be suspended on full pay so long as the risk remains. This is not sick leave, and should not be counted as such.
Because what is safe may change during your pregnancy, your employer may be obliged to carry out another risk assessment later on, to check if any new risks have arisen and your job needs to be altered further.
Note that special rules apply for pregnant night workers.
Your employer must not in almost all cases dismiss you or treat you less favourably for a reason connected with health and safety.
The duty to carry out the risk assessment described above also applies to women who are breastfeeding or who gave birth less than six months ago. Employers are required to provide suitable facilities for breastfeeding mothers to rest and to provide adequate rest and meal breaks. Toilets are not classed as “suitable facilities”. At present, there is no statutory right to time off work for breastfeeding or for expressing milk. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance says employers are “legally required to provide somewhere for pregnant and breastfeeding employees to rest. Where necessary, this should include somewhere for them to lie down. It is not suitable for new mothers to use toilets for expressing milk. You may provide a private, healthy and safe environment for employees to express and store milk, although there is no legal requirement for you to do so”.
Working patterns that do not allow breastfeeding workers to express milk at safe intervals are likely to breach the health and safety obligations on employers and may also amount to indirect sex discrimination.
Night work is when you work at least three hours between 11pm and 6am. HSE guidance says that night work itself does not pose any particular risk to pregnant women. However if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have given birth in the last six months and your doctor or midwife gives you a certificate that says it is necessary for your health and safety to avoid night work, your employer must offer you safe and suitable alternative work or, where this is not possible, suspend you on full pay.
If your employer refuses to do this, or offers an alternative which you feel is not safe or not suitable, seek advice.
Self employed women and Agency workers
If you are not an employee, for example, if you are self employed or an agency worker (with less than 12 weeks service with a hirer), you only have the right to a risk assessment and for risks to be removed, not to an alternative or a suspension.
If you are an agency worker and you have completed a 12 week qualifying period with the same hirer in the same role, and your role ends on maternity health and safety grounds, the agency should offer you any suitable alternative work that is available. If the agency cannot find any suitable alternative work for you (and where you have not unreasonably refused suitable alternative work offered), they should pay you for the rest of the placement that has been ended.
This advice applies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details