In today’s society women constitute a large percentage of the workforce in many industrialised countries, and as a result, addressing pregnancy-related health issues in the workplace is an important factor in order to protect the expectant mother and the unborn baby. Pregnancy should not be equated with ill health and should be regarded as a part of everyday life.
Ideally workers should advise their employer as soon as they are able to when they know that they are pregnant. Legally a female employee must give her employer three pieces of information. Firstly, she must tell her employer that she is pregnant prior to or during the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth (EWC). She must then notify her employer of the EWC date, and she must give the date on which she intends to start her maternity leave. This must be given in writing if the employer requests it. Where necessary the company can also ask to see the form MAT B1. The employee can only change the date on which she intends to start her maternity leave by giving 28 days notice before the new intended start date. Again this must be in writing, if requested.
Once the employee has advised her employer of the pregnancy they must acknowledge the notification of maternity leave within 28 days. Employers are under a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees and there are special duties that apply in respect of new or expectant mothers in the workplace, therefore it is important that the employer and the employee work together to deal with any issues, with a full and open communication.
Being pregnant does not prevent anyone from working or developing their career and every year around 350,000 women continue to work during their pregnancy and over 69% of them return to work after giving birth. In many workplaces there are conditions that are deemed safe under normal circumstances, but may not be so during pregnancy. For example:-
- Lifting and carrying of heavy loads.
- Standing or sitting for long periods of time.
- Exposure to infectious diseases.
- Work related stress.
- Workstation and posture.
- Excessively noisy workplaces.
As the risk assessment is being conducted it is crucial to pay particular attention to the health and safety risks that may affect the new or expectant mother and the baby. If any risks are identified then the new and expectant mother is entitled to a change in working conditions in order that the risk be significantly reduced. However if the risks cannot be removed then you have to ensure that the new or expectant mother is not exposed by offering suitable alternative work if there is any. (The term 'new and expectant mothers' covers women who are pregnant, have given birth in the last six months or are breastfeeding.)
Unfortunately, if there is no other suitable alternative work you must place the new or expectant mother on "maternity suspension" and pay her normal wage or salary throughout the suspension. The only exception is where you have offered suitable alternative work and it has been unreasonably refused. For expectant mothers, maternity suspension can last, if necessary, up to the fourth week before the expected week of childbirth, at which time the ordinary maternity leave period begins.
When compiling the risk assessment, consideration should be given to additional rest breaks, as a new or expectant mother is more likely to need to go to the toilet more frequently, also it will be important for the pregnant worker to drink plenty of fluids both while they are pregnant and when breastfeeding.
As the pregnancy progresses you should constantly monitor and review the assessment to take into account possible risks at various stages of the pregnancy. If as a result of your specific risk assessment, stress has been identified as a possible risk then you should, where possible, remove the risk, or alternatively change the individuals working conditions or hours. As an example, this can extend to hours of work being adjusted in order to reduce the likelihood of having to travel during rush hour.
It is important to remember that an employee can return to work even though she is still breastfeeding. However, it is important that the individual gives written notification ideally prior to the return date in order for a suitable assessment to be completed. As an employer you are required to provide a place for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers to rest. The Health and Safety Executive ‘recommends’ (but it is not a legal requirement) that a private healthy and safe environment be provided for nursing mothers to express and store milk. (Please note: the toilet is not deemed suitable.)
Further advice and guidance on employees requirements in relation to New and Expectant Mothers can be obtained from Citation Plc. We offer a fixed price health and safety and employment law consultancy service in order to help our clients comply with legislation.
If you require any assistance or advice regarding health and safety or employment law compliance, please contact Citation on 0845 844 1111 or visit www.citation.co.uk.
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