By Jaclyn Glover, Deputy Manager, Citizens Advice Newtownabbey
Q: I am six months pregnant and I work full time. I work at a till and would be on my feet all day. I am starting to struggle in this role, but my employer has told me I have no other options. What are my rights?
A: An employer has a legal duty to make the working environment safe for all employees, particularly for women of childbearing age. This means that the employer must carry out a risk assessment to assess what health and safety risks there are in the workplace, and specifically, what risks may be posed to pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding and women who have given birth in the past six months.
Where there is a health and safety risk in the workplace, your employer must take action to eliminate the risk by:
• taking any legal action required, for example, ensuring that you don’t come into contact with hazardous chemicals
• altering your working conditions or hours of work so you are not put at risk - for example: a shop assistant could be given a chair so she does not have to stand for long periods, a woman working at a computer could be given a more comfortable chair or more breaks, a woman whose job entails some lifting could have someone else do the lifting for her.
• if altering your working conditions or hours is not possible, the employer must consider offering you different work at the same pay
• if offering you different work is not possible, your employer must suspend you on medical grounds and pay you full pay while you are suspended
If an employer is unsympathetic to a health and safety issue, as a last resort you may decide to go on sick leave. You should discuss with your doctor what to state on the sick note, as if you are signed off sick for a pregnancy-related reason, this may start your maternity leave earlier than intended.
Going on sick leave is not an ideal solution as it could mean that if sick pay is lower than normal pay, you are paid less statutory maternity pay (SMP) than if you had stayed in work, or no SMP at all. SMP is calculated using a qualifying period during a certain stage of pregnancy, contact Citizens Advice for further information.
If an employer does not fulfil their health and safety obligations, you may be able to claim compensation at an employment tribunal, but this may be harder to argue if you have been on sick leave because the employer may say that you were sick and not suffering from a health and safety risk. This is why it is important to make sure that the sick note makes clear the reason for the absence.
If an employer has not made a risk assessment and/or has not taken one of the steps to eliminate the risk, you may make a complaint to the Health and Safety Executive or the local authority environmental health department which should then investigate and could prosecute. This investigation will not necessarily end with the employee receiving compensation.
• Dismissal or discrimination because of pregnancy
If you are dismissed or treated unfairly because of pregnancy, you can make a claim for discrimination and unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal. It does not matter how long you have worked for your employer or whether you work full or part-time. This is because the law says that it is discrimination and automatically unfair to dismiss a woman because she is pregnant.
• Get free, confidential and independent advice from your nearest Citizens Advice – go to www.citizensadvice.org.uk/nireland or call at: Citizens Advice Newtownabbey, Dunanney Centre, Rathmullan Drive, Rathcoole, Newtownabbey, BT37 9DQ. Telephone advice is available 9am – 4pm each day on 028 9085 2271 (Lunch 1pm - 1:30pm), email advice is available at firstname.lastname@example.org