Employers ‘failing’ to keep new and expectant mothers safe at work

New TUC guidance sets out best practice for businesses in supporting pregnant employees, but warns many organisations are ignoring their responsibilities

Employers must do more to keep pregnant women and new mothers safe at work, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has said, as it released new guidance to help businesses better support expectant employees and those who have recently given birth.

The guidance, entitled Pregnancy, breastfeeding and health and safety and jointly published by the TUC and charity Maternity Action, said pregnant women faced many preventable risks in the workplace that can contribute to poor health or are linked to miscarriages or premature births. These include long or irregular hours such as night and shift work, travelling long distances, constant stress and heat.

However, despite there being clear regulations in place, many employers are either lacking in knowledge or ignoring their legal responsibilities to protect women from these risks, the guidance said.

It added that, according to recent data from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), two-fifths (41 per cent) of expectant mothers felt there was a risk to their health or welfare at work during pregnancy.

Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said employers were “failing to take the health and safety of pregnant and breastfeeding women in the workplace seriously”.

“As a result, we know that many women end up having to choose between risking their own health or that of their baby, going off sick or leaving their job altogether,” she added.

The guidance advised employers to take steps such as supplying comfortable workstations, changing workloads or hours to reduce stress, varying start and finish times to make the commute easier, and allowing more toilet and hydration breaks in order to protect the health of pregnant women.

It also advises on how best to support women returning to work after having a child, including if they are breastfeeding or expressing milk while at work.

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, welcomed the guidance and said was “high time” that employers recognise the role they play in supporting pregnant and returning mothers, and that employers need to “look at the bigger picture”.

“Being pregnant is a huge undertaking for any woman, and employers need to take steps to understand the impact on women’s bodies and how they can support and enable women to work to the best of their ability at this time,” she told People Management.

“Pregnant women need to be made aware of their rights in the workplace, and HR and their employers need to be educated on this too – all too often they are falling very short legally. Investing in and supporting women at this time isn’t just morally the right thing to do, it will pay dividends in the future to the bottom line of the business.” 

Rules regarding the treatment of new and expectant mothers are covered by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The main requirement is for employers to undertake a risk assessment and then manage the risk.

However, the guidance says employers should not wait until a worker notifies them of their pregnancy before taking steps to ensure their safety, instead recommending that organisations create a general risk assessment for new and expectant mothers.

This is because some women do not know they are expecting until late in the pregnancy and, even if they do, some choose not to disclose it to their employer.

Brearley added that communication between the employee and employer was critical and the women hired are still the same person with a “mission and a purpose for the business”.

“Talk to mums about their fears, make a plan for their maternity leave and return that shows them how valued they are. Include them in meetings and planning until they take their maternity leave, work with them on an individual plan that works for them, consider phased returns and flexible working. Don’t talk about them as ‘leaving’ the business – refer to it as maternity leave,” she said.

The report also highlighted that employers’ responsibilities do not finish when a pregnant woman starts maternity leave, and that they can help mothers returning to work by offering suitable facilities and opening up lines of communication.

Research recently published by the EHRC found that despite the majority of pregnant women (77 per cent) reporting possibly discriminatory behaviour, two-thirds (66 per cent) still said their employer supported their need both as an expectant mother and a mother of a young child.

However, almost a third (32 per cent) reported that their needs were not willingly supported during or after having a baby. During pregnancy, 29 per cent also reported they were refused flexible working hours, 28 per cent were denied additional rest or toilet breaks and nearly a quarter (24 per cent) were not allowed to start later or finish earlier.

It also found that 19 per cent of mothers were influenced to stop breastfeeding or expressing milk at the workplace when returning to work and three-quarters of those stated impracticality and a lack of facilities forced them to either completely stop or start to express milk outside of working hours.

Just over half of employers have some form of facilities for mothers to breastfeed or express milk and only two-fifths have a private room available. Some employees were forced to use either the toilet, the sick room and sometimes even storage spaces, all which Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines consider unsuitable.