Pregnant womens’ safety – Government gets it half right
Yesterday the Government published their response to a report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee into pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
Quite a bit of that original report was about health and safety and, amongst other things, the Committee had said that employers should be required to undertake an individual risk assessment when they are informed that a woman who works for them is pregnant, has given birth in the past six months or is breastfeeding.
Now the TUC had some real problems with that as it puts the onus on the worker to let the employer know that they are pregnant. The risk to pregnant women is there regardless of whether the employer, or even the women herself knows she is pregnant and we have always argued that if the main risk assessment is done properly then it should reflect the fact that there might be pregnant workers in the workplace, so it should not matter whether or not women have declared that they are pregnant. Certain hazards may present more of a risk in the first trimester when many women wouldn’t have yet told their employer that they’re pregnant, or may not even know they are pregnant themselves.
That is not to say that women should not be entitled to ask for a specific risk assessment if they have any concerns that their work could put them, or the unborn child, at risk, but the bottom line is that risk assessments in any area where there is a women of child-bearing age is employed should always presume that someone could be pregnant and remove any potential risks.
And there are risks. These can include risks from exposure to various chemicals, the possibility of violence, risks from excessive listing or straining. No-one is suggesting that employers should wrap women in cotton wool in case they are pregnant, simply that they should take account of the possible risks and, where there is any concerns address them. That is not happening.
We therefore think that it is correct that the Government have decided not to implement that recommendation, but that does not mean we are happy with the present position. Most employers are simply not conducting a proper risk assessment and even of those that do, a survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 20% of those employers who identified risks took no action and 1 in 5 mothers ended up leaving employment because of the risks involved.
It is therefore pretty scandalous that the Government have rejected another recommendation from the Committee. This was the call for an improved role for the HSE in ensuring compliance and research into how to encourage greater enforcement. They say that there is already suitable guidance and no need for more research. This is nonsense and ignores the evidence. Clearly it is just the usual anti-regulatory knee-jerk reaction that we have come to expect and anyone who reads the EHRC research will see that this is complacent and dangerous. There is a huge problem out there that is being swept under the carpet by the Government.
In the meanwhile probably the best advice was the response from Frances O’Grady when the report was produced. “My advice to women is to join a union. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted pregnant women and new mums are treated better in workplaces that recognise trade unions.”