Health and safety law protects pregnant employees not just in potentially hazardous industries but also against carrying heavy loads, exposure to extreme heat or noise and prolonged sitting or standing. Risks can also arise from apparently harmless sources. A VDU operator is probably at more risk from the chair she is sitting on than the screen she is working at.
Employers should beware. By law, they must now protect pregnant employees from risk, whereas in the past if it became unsafe for her to work, she was expected to take sick leave or resign from her job. They must carry out a thorough risk assessment for pregnant employees and keep reviewing the situation: risks can change during a pregnancy. If there is a risk, take steps to remove it; or,if the risk remains, temporarily alter the work; or, if the risk is unavoidable, offer the employee suitable alternative work; if there is no alternative work, suspend her on full pay.
An employer who failed to do a risk assessment and whose employee went off sick to protect herself, was obliged by law to pay her the difference between her sick pay and what she would have received if she had been suspended from work. If she had lost her statutory maternity pay because her earnings when off sick were too low for her to qualify, she would have been entitled to compensation for that too.
Health and safety obligations do not end at birth. Employers have a responsibility to protect women who are breastfeeding or have recently given birth. This means providing rest facilities and, arguably, enabling an employee to carry on breastfeeding.
Joanna Wade is a solicitor with the Maternity Alliance. 0171 588 8583.