Pregnancy is not an illness and the majority of women remain well throughout their pregnancy. In fact, research shows that most women who work are healthier during their pregnancy than those who do not work. Some studies also show that women who are employed have a lower risk of early delivery than those who are not. In general, work is not harmful in pregnancy. However, while at work you may be exposed to certain hazards that could potentially cause harm to you or your baby. These need to be identified and assessed properly as early as possible in your pregnancy but need not necessarily stop you from working.
What hazards could be risky to pregnant worker?
Some substances and hazards that you may encounter at work (for example ionising radiation) are known to cause harm in pregnancy and there are regulations in place to protect you. Other hazards, including infections, are usually assessed on an individual basis. The effects of other aspects of work, such as psychological factors, are less clear.
Inform your employer
It is very important to tell your manager as early as possible that you are pregnant. Your employer is required by law to identify any important potential hazards at work and carry out a risk assessment. Your employer is also responsible for making any reasonable adjustments to your workplace or to your job during your pregnancy. Your manager should be able to advise you, or to point you towards a source of advice. If you have any particular worries about the effect of work on your pregnancy then discuss your views and concerns with your manager, and identify any tasks that you are worried about or finding particularly difficult.
Our knowledge of the risks from physical factors at work, including heavy physical activity, lifting, prolonged standing, long working hours and night work is incomplete. Although quite a lot of research has been done we cannot be certain about the size of the risk, or indeed if there is a risk at all. It is possible that there may be a risk from some of these activities, especially if carried out late in pregnancy. However, it appears that if there are any risks to mother or baby, these are quite small. Indeed, it is possible that being physically active during pregnancy is actually good for your health, and the health of your baby, and that restricting your activities unduly may even be harmful.
For most jobs no specific action will need to be taken. However if your job involves any of the following it is probably advisable to reduce these activities, particularly in the late stages of pregnancy:
- lifting heavy loads
- hard physical work
- prolonged standing
- long working hours or night work
You should make your manager or the HR department aware if you have specific worries. Then work together to identify ways in which particularly strenuous, heavy or tiring tasks can be altered or avoided. Every employer has a legal duty to carry out a risk assessment of the work you undertake. However, remember that there is unlikely to be a large risk to you or your baby from any of these activities. If you have discussed things with your manager and wish to continue working as normal, then you should be able to so.
Once you have notified your employer that you are pregnant suitable controls measures must be put into place to protect you and your unborn child. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should also be provided with facilities to rest as required. Pregnancy is not an illness, however some expectant mothers may have underlying health conditions or may have been advised by their doctor of particular health concerns relating to their pregnancy.
The risk to new or expectant mothers from biological agents is not generally considered to be any different from other employees. However those which are particularly relevant are those which could cause damage to the foetus, these include: hepatitis B, human immune deficiency virus (HIV), tuberculosis, rubella, chicken pox & meningitis. The risk assessment will take into account the biological agent involved, how it is spread and the likelihood of infection. Depending on its classification, the control measures under COSHH should be followed.
Many chemicals can cause adverse effects although the degree of risk will be determined by the degree of exposure and other conditions in the workplace. The following chemical agents will need to be considered during the assessment:
- Substances absorbed through the skin (Look for “sk” on the label)
- Chemical labelled with – ‘possible risk, or Substances which may cause cancer’, ‘may cause harm to unborn child’, ‘possible risk to unborn child’ etc.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to carry out ”suitable and sufficient” risk assessments which take into consideration new and expectant mothers. As the risk may increase when a woman is a new or expectant mother, then existing risk assessments must be reviewed and subject to additional consideration. The risks need to be managed, where this is not possible alternative work offered or as a last resort the individual may need to be suspended on full pay until their maternity pay commences.
Regulation 16-18 of the above regulations cover expectant and nursing mothers. A Medical Practitioner may certificate a pregnant worker to say they are unfit for work. The employer is only duty bound to carry out the above risk assessment if they have been informed of the pregnancy. The process is the same as a general risk assessment but needs to highlight and focus on those hazards which may present a higher risk of injury to a pregnant or nursing mother. The HSE publication “New and expectant mothers at work – A guide for employers” HSG122 identifies specific topics which will require consideration during the assessment. This is available for free download from the Health and Safety Executive web site.
Additional Employers’ Duties
Employers have a general duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all employees and any other person who may be adversely affected by the employer’s work activities or workplace, under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 (HSWA).
However, an employer has a general duty under the HSWA and the MHSWR to take steps to protect the health and safety of any new or expectant mothers, even if she has not given written notification of her condition.
The Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 and the Ionising Radiations Regulations 2017 require employers to comply with the prescribed exposure levels for new and expectant mothers as soon as they have been notified of the pregnancy. These levels may be lower than for the workforce as a whole.
The Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 also prohibit women (regardless of whether they are new and expectant mothers) from being involved in certain lead processes.
The Ionising Radiations Regulations 2017 require that the conditions of exposure to ionising radiation for pregnant employees must, after the employer has been notified of the pregnancy, be such that the foetus is unlikely to be exposed to an equivalent dose of more than 1mSv during the remainder of the pregnancy.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require employers to provide suitable rest facilities for pregnant women or nursing mothers.
The Maternity and Parental Leave, etc. Regulations 1999 prohibit women returning to work within two weeks of giving birth.
Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, an employer may offer work that is suitable and appropriate to avoid a risk. Terms and conditions must be no less favourable than the employee’s normal terms and conditions. An employer can also suspend an employee on maternity grounds (on full pay) under any recommendation in any relevant provisions of a Code of Practice issued or approved under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.
Any breach of health and safety legislation in relation to new and expectant mothers may be considered sex discrimination. There is no statutory limit on the total amount of compensation awarded under the Equality Act 2010.
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