Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work (Amendment) Regulations 1994, employers are required in anticipation of a woman of child-bearing age entering their employ to carry out a pregnancy risk assessment.

The risk assessment process (which covers those who have recently given birth and are breastfeeding, as well as pregnant women) requires employers:

a. to assess all risks to which such employees might be exposed;

b. to ensure they are not exposed to those risks; and

c. if a risk remains despite preventative and other actions, terms of work (hours, place, etc.), to offer such employees alternative work or grant them paid leave if this is not available.

The Equal Opportunities Commission recently noted that in 2001 there were 1,387 maternity related discrimination claims regarding breaches of Health and Safety legislation (96% of the discrimination claims). The average compensation claim paid was £9,871.

The HSE identify 5 general risks that there are to pregnant women in the workplace, but these should be taken as guidance only since each risk assessment of each workplace will inevitably be different. In addition, each employer should identify the particular risks related to their own operation.

1. Working with Unhealthy Substances

Perhaps the most widely encountered substance with which a pregnant woman and new mother might come into contact is lead. Any use of lead should be identified and women of child bearing age prohibited from working anywhere near its use or handling products which have been in contact with lead. (Similar restrictions apply to a range of other substances - e.g. radio-active material.)

2. Violent or Stressful Environments
What some people find acceptable, other may find stressful - e.g. some people can stand loud music, others cannot. The environments within which people work should be assessed and those working in areas felt to be potentially stressful should be specially advised, and if and when a woman states she is pregnant she should be asked if she wishes to transfer elsewhere.

The situation of a pregnant or new mother working within an environment which is 'rough' or 'tough' or in any way violent, needs to be assessed very carefully, with specific guidance depending on individual problems and risks.

3. Lifting
Employees are generally prohibited from lifting loads heavier than around 55lbs without manual or mechanical assistance. However, applying this weight restriction could be unwise for many pregnant women and a more realistic maximum load is perhaps 4 kilos or 10lb. The volume of a package is also important since a light weight but bulky object might pose considerably greater danger than a small but heavier item.

4. Confined Working Space
The simple increase in body size due to pregnancy, can create problems of its own if the working environment is at all confined or small, or there is a restricted access etc. Such items should be identified. If it is impossible to change them, the possibility of the woman working elsewhere should be considered.

5. Using an Unsuitable Workstation
Where the woman is using a visual display unit, the ergonomic arrangement of such equipment may often leave much to be desired. Whilst this may be acceptable in the ordinary course, there may be specific dangers to a pregnant woman whose condition requires attention to posture etc.

Those using VDUs should:

  • have a comfortable, adjustable chair - with good back support;

  • a desk surface which allows them to position the VDU at least 10 inches from their head and provides sufficient space for other working papers;

  • have a monitor which is not situated so that it creates a reflection or glare, and generates minimal radiation;

  • keep the screen clean and adjust brightness and contrast to create a good working light;

  • take regular rests (not necessarily from work but from the VDU work) and allow the eyes to refocus on a more distant subject than the VDU screen;

  • sit so that the wrists are parallel with the keyboard, 'float above it', and can rest on a support regularly;

  • place the feet either on the floor or on a raked footstool to remove strain from the back, thighs should be parallel with the floor; and

  • either the user should face any window or natural light should be capable of being filtered with blinds or curtains.

  • Procedure
    1. Accompanied by a pregnant woman (or a woman who has given birth) tour the whole area where a pregnant woman/new mother might work - identify all risks.

    2. Consider whether any risks can be removed or minimised and, if so, implement changes to effect this.

    3. List risks which cannot be removed and/or minimised on a written risk assessment.

    4. Immediately a woman indicates she is pregnant, give her a copy of the risk assessment (possibly walking round and identifying the risks with her).

    5. Invite the woman to advise the employer if she notes any additional risks so that the risk assessment can be updated.

    6. Regularly review and update the risk assessment.

    If there are serious risks, during the time she continues working, a pregnant woman has a right to have the risks removed from her normal place of work. If this is impossible then she can carry out her work elsewhere where there are no risks. If this is impossible then she can be asked to work on other tasks (without any detriment regarding salient features of her contract - hours, pay, benefits etc.). If there is no work she can undertake she has the right to be suspended on full pay until such time as her maternity leave commences.