Legal Article - Health & Safety

New and Expectant Mothers at Work

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 employers are required to protect the health and safety at work of all employees, but especially (i) women during pregnancy, up to 6 months following the birth of a live or dead child and up to the cessation of breast feeding if longer than 6 months, and (ii) young workers.

Employers must inform all female employees of child bearing capacity about the potential risks and what the employer will do to make sure that new or expectant mothers are protected.

It should also be emphasised that they should inform management in writing that they are pregnant as soon as possible in order to enable the employer to undertake an appropriate risk assessment.

The employer can also request in writing a certificate from a registered medical practitioner, or a registered midwife, confirming the pregnancy.

If the assessment identifies specific hazards the employer must take all reasonably practicable steps to prevent exposure to risks through the removal of the hazards or the implementation of appropriate controls.

If a risk remains which could damage the health or safety of a new or expectant mother or her baby and cannot be removed, the women must be offered suitable alternative work if available (on the same pay etc.) and if none is available she should be suspended from work on full pay as long as is necessary to protect the health and safety of the mother and child.

New and expectant mothers must not be required to work at night if they have a medical certificate stating that the night work could damage their health or safety.

Daytime work should be offered if available, or paid leave.

All of these rights apply regardless of a women’s length of service or hours of work.
The type of hazards and working conditions that may affect the health and safety of these mothers are:

Shocks, vibration or movement

 
Regular exposure to shocks, low frequency vibration (e.g. driving or riding in off-road vehicles), or excessive movement may increase the risk of a miscarriage.

Long term exposure to vibration does not cause foetal abnormalities, but this often occurs with heavy physical work so there may be an increased risk of premature labour or a low birth weight. Breast feeding workers are at no greater risk than other workers.

Manual handling of loads where there is a risk of injury

Pregnant workers are especially at risk from manual handling injury - for example, hormonal changes can affect the ligaments, increasing susceptibility to injury; and postural problems may increase as the pregnancy progresses.

There can also be risks for those who have recently given birth, for example after a caesarean section there is likely to be a temporary limitation on lifting and handling capacity.

There is no evidence to suggest that breastfeeding mothers are at greater risk from manual handling injury than any other workers.
 

Noise

There appears to be no specific risk to new or expectant mothers or to the foetus, but prolonged exposure to loud noise may lead to increased blood pressure and tiredness.
No particular problems for women who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding.
 

Extremes of cold or heat

When pregnant, women tolerate heat less well and may more readily faint or be more liable to heat stress. The risk is likely to be reduced after birth but it is not certain how quickly an improvement comes about.

Breastfeeding may be impaired by heat dehydration.
No specific problems arise from working in extreme cold, although clearly for other health and safety reasons, warm clothing should be provided.

Movements and postures, travelling – either inside or outside the establishment – mental and physical fatigue and other physical burdens connected with the activity of new or expectant mothers

Fatigue from standing and other physical work has been associated with miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight.
Excessive physical or mental pressure may cause stress and can give rise to anxiety and raised blood pressure.

Pregnant workers may experience problems in working at heights, for example ladders, platforms, and in working in tightly fitting workspaces or with workstations which do not adjust sufficiently to take account of increased abdominal size, particularly during the later stages of pregnancy.

This may lead to strain or sprain injuries. Dexterity, agility, co-ordination, speed or movement, reach and balance may also be impaired and an increased risk of accidents may need to be considered.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide readily crosses the placenta and can result in the foetus being starved of oxygen. Data on the effects of exposure to carbon monoxide on pregnant women are limited, but there is evidence of adverse effects on the foetus.

Both the level and duration of maternal exposure are important factors in the effect on the foetus.

There is no indication that breastfed babies suffer adverse effects from their mother’s exposure to carbon monoxide, nor that the mother is significantly more sensitive to carbon monoxide after giving birth.

Lead and lead derivatives – in so far as these agents are capable of being absorbed by the human organism

Occupational exposure to lead in the early 1900s, when exposure was poorly controlled, was associated with high frequencies of spontaneous abortion, stillborn and infertility; More recent studies draw attention to an association between low-level lead exposure before the baby is born from environmental sources and mild decreases in intellectual performance in childhood.

The effects on breastfed babies of their mother’s lead exposure have not been studied. However, lead can enter breast milk. Since it is thought that the nervous system of young children is particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of lead, the exposure of breastfeeding mothers to lead should be viewed with concern.

Work with display screen equipment (VDUs)

Anxiety about radiation emissions from display screen equipment and possible effects on pregnant women has been widespread. However, there is substantial evidence that these concerns are unfounded.

The National Radiological Protection Board, which has the statutory function of providing information and advice on all radiation matters to Government departments, has given the advice below which summarises scientific understanding.

The levels of ionising and non-ionising electromagnetic radiation which are likely to be generated by display screen equipment are well below those set out in international recommendations for limiting risk to human health created by such emissions and the National Radiological Protection Board does not consider such levels to pose a significant risk to health.

No special protective measures are therefore needed to protect the health of people from this radiation.

There has been considerable public concern about reports of higher levels of miscarriage and birth defects among some groups of visual display unit (VDU) workers, in particular due to electromagnetic radiation.

Many scientific studies have been carried out, but taken as a whole their results do not show any link between miscarriages or birth defects and working with VDUs. Research and reviews of the scientific evidence will continue to be undertaken.

Published: 23 Mar 2011

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