Following the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report last year that suggested that one in twenty-five mothers left the workforce because risks to their health or to the health of their child were not managed, the HSE were urged to improve their guidance to employers on assessing risks to pregnant and new mothers.
The HSE did not change their downloadable guidance document, INDG 373 – probably because if followed, it already tells employers what they need to know. However, they did make some changes to the website to highlight the flowchart from INDG 373, which emphasise the value of regular consultation and discussion between women and their employers, whether during pregnancy or on return to work.
Previous, more detailed HSE guidance (known as HSG 122) was withdrawn in 2012. This document had provided a lot more detail (71 pages compared with 6 pages in INDG 373) on how to manage risks to pregnant and new mothers. However, it implied that a separate risk assessment was needed for every pregnant or new mother, and as such it “gold-plated” the legislation, leading to unnecessary risk assessments. All that is needed to protect women and their unborn or new child is the following:
- If there are any women in the workplace, an employer should consider the risks to “women of child-bearing age” (in other words, any working female) in all risk assessments.
- Where particular risks are identified which cannot be removed, then suitable controls must be specified.
- When a woman notifies that she is pregnant, or is returning to work as a new mother, the existing generic risk assessments can be consulted to determine whether the woman needs an individual risk assessment or whether the hazards identified can be eliminated in other ways.
The law does NOT prescribe that an employer must fill out a risk assessment table for every pregnant or breastfeeding woman, or woman with a child under six months old. What employers have to do is ensure the health and safety of everyone in their workplace.
If your workplace involves hazards such as lead, radiation or work with infectious diseases, generic controls can kick in. Provided these controls are managed well, even here it might not be necessary to document a separate risk assessment. In an office environment all that might be needed is a revised computer workstation (“DSE”) risk assessment.
For low-risk environments a regular discussion between worker and manager can take the place of a formal risk assessment. The HSE require only the significant findings of risk assessments to be documented, so where a worker and manager have a good working relationship and regular meetings, an email such as the one below would be an adequate record.
Where line managers don’t feel they have the skills to have such discussions, HR or occupational health can run the meetings. However, line management need to stay involved since they remain responsible for the hazards created by the work, and for managing the controls needed to keep mother – and baby – safe.