What protection against unsafe working conditions is there for pregnant workers and women who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding?

Your employer owes a general duty to all workers to carry out assessments looking for risks to their health and safety. These risk assessments should include consideration of risks to any employees of childbearing age, in particular new and expectant mothers.

Risks could be presented, for example, by working conditions, chemicals or other materials being used, and so on.

Your employer should provide all female workers of childbearing age with comprehensive and relevant information about the risks identified by the assessment, and about the measures taken to protect against those risks.

If you become pregnant, are breastfeeding, or have given birth in the previous six months, your employer should check their workplace risk assessment for new risks, bearing in mind the sort of job you do.

If new risks are identified, your employer should discuss the situation with you and take sensible action to reduce, remove or control them.

The best way to check for risks in connection with pregnancy and maternity is through a specific written risk assessment exercise whenever an employer is notified that a worker is pregnant.

An employer who identifies an avoidable risk to the health and safety of a new or expectant mother, or their unborn child, must change their working hours or working conditions. If this is not reasonable, or if it would not remove the risk, the woman must be suspended on full pay for as long as necessary. This is the woman’s right to a 'maternity suspension'.

The woman is entitled to be paid her full wages unless she has turned down an offer of suitable alternative work.

Your voice as a pregnant woman must be heard clearly throughout this process. It is important that women are not de-skilled unnecessarily, and that you do not have your childcare arrangements disrupted during your pregnancy when the risk does not justify the changes suggested by your employer.

Employers should act sensibly, take appropriate expert medical advice and consult properly with you. Jumping to conclusions based on stereotype about what expectant mothers can and can’t do is likely to amount to sex discrimination. Speak to your rep if you have one where you work.

You are entitled to be paid your full wages unless you have turned down an offer of suitable alternative work.

Agency workers with 12 weeks’ service with the same hirer in the same role also have the right to a maternity suspension.

In 2017, the European Court of Justice in an important ruling, Otero Ramos v Servicio Galego de Saude, decided that it is sex discrimination for an employer to fail to make appropriate provision for breastfeeding at work.

Under EU law, an employer must carry out an adequate breastfeeding risk assessment for any woman returning to work after having a baby who intends to breastfeed. Failure to carry out any (or any adequate) risk assessment and to make appropriate adjustments is direct sex discrimination.

The ruling in Otero Ramos may also help support women seeking other work adjustments during pregnancy, such as adjustments to travel arrangements to avoid rush hour, where travel exacerbates morning sickness.

You can find more information on the Health and Safety Executive's New and Expectant Mothers webpage.

Unions continue to play a key role supporting the rights of expectant and new mothers at work. For example in 2016, two members of general union Unite brought successful claims against airline easyJet with the support of their union, due to the airline’s failure to accommodate expressing breast milk at work. The claims were for indirect sex discrimination and for breach of the health and safety-based maternity suspension laws. The tribunal heard evidence that easyJet required crew members to fly rostered shifts of over eight continuous hours despite clear medical evidence that failing to give the breastfeeding mothers the chance to express milk for over eight hours raised their risk of mastitis, milk statis and engorgement.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.

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