Keeping your pregnant employee safe

You have a responsibility to ensure that work does not harm your pregnant employee or her baby.

You have a responsibility to ensure that work does not harm your pregnant employee or her baby. To do this, you must carry out a risk assessment to ensure that her particular job, working practices and workplaces are safe.

What is a risk assessment?

A risk assessment is a way of formally assessing the workplace to reassure you and your employee that her workplace and working conditions are as safe and comfortable as possible. Regular assessments during your employee’s pregnancy show that you are continuing to safeguard her interests.

Carrying out a risk assessment ensures that you are acting within the law and reinforces your concern for the health and wellbeing of all staff to your workforce.

What should a risk assessment include?

A risk assessment should look at all aspects of the employee’s work and workplace to see if there are any hazards that present an unacceptable risk to her health and safety and that of her baby. If the employee works in more than one place, the risk assessment should cover each workplace.

The risk assessment doesn’t need to be complicated. In some occupations, there will be few hazards and assessing the risks may only require common sense. It’s important to be methodical about looking at all aspects of the work and workplace and not to take anything for granted.

Can I do a general risk assessment for all pregnant employees?

No. Each pregnant employee working in your company (even if not directly employed by the company) should have her own risk assessment, as there may be medical or working issues that are unique to her.

If the company has more than five employees, you must write up the risk assessment. It’s a good idea for smaller employers to do this too, even though they are not required to do so by law, as it will avoid any confusion.

Step-by-step guide to risk assessments

It’s important to carry out a risk assessment as soon as possible after being informed in writing of an employee’s pregnancy.

This chart outlines the steps you should take to ensure you have identified and assessed all potential risks.

Step 1: Use your existing risk assessment for women of childbearing age as a basis for the individual assessment.

Step 2: Identify any hazards. Hazards are often broken down into the following groups: biological, chemical, ergonomic, physical, psychosocial (see table below for more information ). Write down any findings and take into account the midwife or GP’s advice about their patient, which may be on a ‘fit note’.

Step 3: Assess the potential of each hazard to cause harm. Is the risk high or low? If there are known health and safety issues in your workplace, such as chemicals for instance, these should be included in the risk assessment. Continue to follow the health and safety guidelines already in place, taking into account adjustments for pregnant workers.

Step 4: Take action to remove, reduce or control the risk where possible. This could include adjusting her working conditions and/or hours of work, for example.

Step 5:  If the risk remains significant and you are unable to remove, reduce or control it, offer the employee suitable alternative employment where possible. If you do this, continue to assess and review her new role. If she refuses a reasonable offer of alternative employment, she’s effectively resigning.

Step 6: If there is no suitable alternative work, suspend the employee on full pay for as long as necessary to protect her health and safety, and that of her baby. If the risk remains, this may continue for six months after childbirth, or longer if she is breastfeeding.

Step 7:  Ensure that your employee continues to benefit from the same terms and conditions during any temporary adjustments to her job or in the new role to which she has been temporarily assigned.

Step 8:  Review the risk assessment each trimester, even if no hazards were identified, to take into account your employee’s physical changes as her pregnancy progresses. It’s a good idea to set dates for doing this when you carry out the initial assessment. If your employee is unclear about anything or feels that the risk assessment hasn’t identified all the risks, arrange a time to sit down and discuss it in more detail.

Examples of potential hazards to consider

As a guide, hazards can be grouped into biological, chemical, ergonomic, physical and psychosocial. Here are some examples of each type, who they might affect and ways the risk could be reduced or removed.

If any of the hazards identified in the table below are present in your employee’s workplace, you should refer to the relevant regulations or guidance for information on what you should do to reduce or remove them.

These include bacteria and viruses that cause diseases, such as rubella.

Who could they affect?

  • Health workers
  • Teachers

Risks they could present

  • Risk of miscarriage and danger to the unborn baby

Examples of risk reduction removal

  • Change duties while the risk is present
  • Wear protective clothing

These include cleaning fluids, pesticides, asbestos, lead, mercury, carbon monoxide, cytotoxic drugs.

Who could they affect?

  • Cleaners
  • Agricultural workers
  • Factory workers
  • Nurses and pharmacists

Risks they could present

  • Risk of miscarriage and danger to the unborn baby

Examples of risk reduction removal

  • Wear protective clothing
  • Follow hygiene practices
  • Change duties if necessary to avoid risks

These include lifting and handling, repetitive activities, operating machinery, working in a confined space and prolonged standing or sitting.

Who could they affect?

  • Production line workers
  • Retail workers
  • Office workers

Risks they could present

  • Ligament strain
  • Prolonged standing may lead to dizziness and increased risk of premature birth
  • Prolonged sitting may lead to risk of deep-vein thrombosis

Examples of risk reduction removal

  • Vary duties
  • Change workstation for increased comfort
  • Provide stools to sit on
  • Introduce lifting equipment

These include noise, dust, vibrations, radiation, extreme temperatures, violence and slips or trips.

Who could they affect?

  • Labourers and manual workers
  • Machinists
  • Radiographers
  • Employees who have direct contact with customers
  • Factory workers

Risks they could present

  • Persistent noise levels can lead to stress and tiredness
  • Strong vibrations, exposure to dust, radiation, extreme temperatures and violence all present a risk to the baby

Examples of risk reduction removal

  • Move to a quieter area
  • Change duties to avoid risk
  • Avoid handling cash to reduce the risk of violence
  • Make sure the workplace is clear of obstacles and spillages on the ground

These include working alone, long hours, stress at work, threat of abuse or violence and night working.

Who could they affect?

  • Home workers
  • People who work in public service
  • Shift workers or managers

Risks they could present

  • Stress, which can increase the risk of miscarriage and premature birth, and affect a woman’s ability to breastfeed

Examples of risk reduction removal

  • Provide additional training
  • Improve communication for lone workers
  • Switch to day work
  • Delegate to other staff to avoid unnecessary stress
  • Cut back hours

Five risk-assessment factors

  1. An employer should carry out a risk assessment for all employees, including women of childbearing age, which will also cover risks to new and expectant mothers.
  2. If risks have been identified, necessary action should have already been taken to remove, reduce or control them.
  3. Employers should inform employees of any remaining risks that might impact on fertility or the early weeks of pregnancy and should stress the importance of employees telling them about a pregnancy as early as possible.
  4. An employer must conduct a specific risk assessment for each pregnant woman who works on the premises after being informed in writing about the pregnancy. This includes permanent, temporary, and agency workers. 
  5. Reviews should be conducted regularly, at least once each trimester and when the employee returns to work if this is within six months of the birth or if she is still breastfeeding.