Equal opportunities legislation in socially developed countries allows women to enter almost any occupation and ensures job retention during and after pregnancy, protecting women against discrimination because of childbirth. Women everywhere continue working while pregnant and return to work while breastfeeding. It is part of life. This article looks at the role of the employer for new and expectant mothers. The first step being the risk assessment.
Risk Assessment for New and Expectant Mothers
Some work has inherent risks to the unborn child and mother, so pregnancy risk assessments are necessary to protect both at this time. After birth, the mother may return to work while breastfeeding and again, the manager needs to repeat the risk assessment for protecting both mother and baby’s health.
Employers should consider the following risk assessments for new and expectant mothers:
- General risk assessment of the organisation for substances that may affect fertility or a woman’s ability to conceive, e.g., working with lead
- The risks associated with a particular job or task that has an effect before or after giving birth, e.g., manual handling
- Individual issues – see also the bio-psychosocial model.
It is worth mentioning here that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers may have some misconceptions about the work that they do, and the danger posed. It is important that employers take these fears seriously and reassure and explain if there are concerns, because, in rare cases of miscarriage, the mother may perceive the workplace at fault or played a part.
Workers must tell employers that they are pregnant, have given birth in the previous six months or are breastfeeding to trigger the risk assessment process and ensures the employer can do what is reasonably practicable to control the risks. Following on from notification, from the mother or mother to be, the manager does the first risk assessment as soon as possible.
Note that if the woman does not tell anyone she is pregnant, a personal risk assessment and protection it offers cannot happen. Therefore, it is crucial the employer gives this message to all women of childbearing age early on in employment (usually written in company rules or during an induction programme). The problem is that women don’t want to tell the employer too early, in case of issues or an underlying fear of miscarriage.
Statistic show that 1 in 8, or around 12% of all recognised pregnancies in the UK end in miscarriage (loss of a recognised pregnancy before the 24th week of gestation).
The risk assessment follows the guidance of other risk assessment processes and usually with the woman to discuss her particular role. Follow the guidance notes in pregnancy risk assessment remembering to agree on review dates at each stage of evaluation.
For access to a risk assessment template and guidance notes click here
Risk Assessment Reviews
The situation with pregnancy is not static – as the pregnancy progresses, there are changes to the body shape. Increasing girth and hormonal changes give rise to ergonomic, fatigue and personal space issues.
Employers need to check the risk assessment at regular intervals during the pregnancy to take into account changing health and ergonomic needs.
The risk assessment process needs repeating before the return to work after pregnancy. To avoid embarrassment, it’s best to assume that a mother is breastfeeding for the first six months after birth unless notified otherwise; so that suitable facility for expressing milk and resting are available (fatigue may be an issue with night feeding).
The new or pregnant mother keeps copies of all risk assessments for future reference, with a reminder to report any concerns she has to management immediately.
Health Professional’s Role
Health professionals (OH professionals, GP’s and midwives) become involved in more complex health situations (complicated or multiple births, history of miscarriage, etc.) or where there may be high-risk activity e.g. working with mercury, radiation.
Fitness for work may alter during pregnancy with changes required as the pregnancy continues or health issues arise when referral to occupational health (if you have a service) may be necessary.
Where there are risks, the employer should take reasonable steps to remove them – e.g., by offering different work or changing working hours. There is also the issue of the woman herself – how many pregnancies has she had already and the stage of pregnancy (early or late). However, childbirth is a ‘natural’ event and employers need not ‘medicalise’ pregnancy as a routine. Many organisations have low-risk work (call centres, office work, and admin roles) available for those who need temporary redeployment.
GP’s and midwives play a pivotal role in supporting the pregnancy and advising both the mother to be and the workplace to protect safety; this is especially helpful when working in high-risk environments or where there are underlying health issues, either with the person or with the work environment/tasks.
Visit the UK regulators page on pregnancy and work here
The loss of a baby in pregnancy is an unhappy, frightening and lonely experience for would-be parents.
Miscarriages happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy or later but always comes as a shock to both. Sometimes women have to wait to find out what is going on without knowing if they have lost the baby, a hugely stressful time.
Whatever the circumstances, some feelings are common, such as shock, a sense of loss, anger, confusion and anxiety. Supportive measures during this difficult time may or not be welcome and it is best to be guided by the mother on what to do.
Counselling services and employee assistance programmes can help with supporting employees or for UK public help and support go to The Miscarriage Association or ring the Helpline on 01924 200799 Monday to Friday office hours.
- Example of a new and expectant mother’s policy statement: click here
- The HSE: New and expectant mothers who work
- The HSE has a list of FAQs about pregnancy available here
- Pregnancy and work: what you need to know as an employee – a guide from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
- The Fatherhood Institute – provides information for working fathers about current legislation, wellbeing and work-life balance
- Maternity Action has information sheets for mothers and fathers on their rights at work
- Tommy’s promotes the health and welfare of working mothers
1. Men may also be affected by substances that affect their fertility
2. Faculty of Occupational Medicine guidance: extract from website, May 2014
3. Automatically refer to a health professional or assume it is a medical problem – it is a natural part of life