The physical restrictions of being pregnant at work

HR expert Kate Palmer explains what employer need to do to comply with health & safety regulations concerning pregnant workers.

Forced into 'less demanding' role for asking to go part time


If work wasn’t stressful enough, try adding pregnancy into the mix.

Being a pregnant worker is limiting, especially in a physically demanding line of work. Heavy lifting and rushing around may have once been the day-to-day norm. Now, it’s a hazard.

By law, businesses must take steps to look after the health & safety of pregnant workers. This means their day-to-day responsibilities may have to change pretty drastically for the duration of their pregnancy – and in some cases, stop altogether.

That’s because pregnant workers have certain physical limitations in the workplace. And employers have a legal obligation to identify and control any potential risks to them by carrying out a separate risk assessment. If they can’t control these risks, they may have to provide alternative work or suspend a pregnant worker on full pay (as a last resort).

So if employers have any expectant parents in your business, here are a few things to consider.

Does the pregnant worker stand up or sit down for long periods of time?

Whether an employee is sitting down, on their feet, or even just standing in one spot for long periods of time, employers should make changes.

Pregnant employees shouldn’t stand or sit still for more than three hours without taking a break, according to HSE guidance.

The Healthline website warns that staying in the same position for too long, whether that’s seated or standing, can be uncomfortable for pregnant workers. It may also increase the risk of them developing swollen ankles and vein problems. So, if a pregnant worker does sit down all day, it’s good to give them regular short breaks to move around.

Likewise, if they’re on their feet all day, they should have regular rest breaks to sit down.

Employers can help support pregnant workers who spend a lot of time sitting or standing by:

  • Making sure they have comfortable seating with good lower back support.

Offering an adjustable chair can help give pregnant workers more support and make sitting down more comfortable. Alternatively, employers could add a cushion to a normal chair to help support their lower back.

  • Providing a footrest

To help prevent swollen feet and legs, providing a footrest allows seated pregnant workers to put their feet up. Or, if they have to stand up, having one foot on a footrest and switching up with the other regularly can help as well.

Do the working conditions pose any risks to pregnant workers?

While employees shouldn’t be sitting down or standing for too long, they also shouldn’t be stuck in a small space where they have limited movement. This could be very uncomfortable for them as well as increase their risk of injury.

Another thing to consider is whether they have easy access to the toilets. Pregnant workers may suffer from morning sickness, nausea, constipation, and bladder problems. So, it’s important that they can easily and quickly get to the toilets when they need to.

It might be that employers need to move their workstation nearer the facilities or consider allowing the employee to work flexibly. This might mean allowing them to work from home or adjust their hours around when they’re not feeling their best.

Employers should also designate an area for employees to go and rest or lie down when they need to.

Does the pregnant worker have to do a lot of bending or heavy lifting?

If a pregnant worker’s role involves a lot of bending or heavy lifting, this may increase the risk of them getting injured, miscarrying, or giving birth prematurely.

According to the NHS, people who are pregnant may experience hormonal changes that make them more susceptible to muscular injuries. They can be at risk even in the very early stages of pregnancy.

So, employers will need to offer them alternative work if they would normally do a lot of heavy lifting and physically demanding work. And whatever new position they fill while pregnant, employers will need to make sure they’re still on the same terms and conditions and pay.

If they can’t offer alternative work, then they may have to consider suspension.

Does the pregnant worker have to climb heights?

Climbing ladders, steps, or any sort of height is dangerous anyway, but especially for pregnant workers.

Working at heights puts pregnant workers at risk of falling, fainting, or suffering high blood pressure. So, it’s better for them to avoid doing it altogether.

As climbing a rickety ladder or trying to reach something high up is so risky, it’s best that pregnant workers get help from colleagues or use a stool that has a lot more stability.

Ideally, they shouldn’t be doing this. But if they have to, they should have help and supervision.

Help expectant parents stay safe on the job

Employers can help protect pregnant staff on the job and stay legally safe by:

  • Carrying out a thorough pregnancy risk assessment – identify and control any risks to expectant mothers through a health & safety risk assessment.
  • Making workplace adjustments – check whether they need to make changes to the workplace, like rearranging furniture or adding rest facilities, to improve the conditions for the pregnant worker.

And if they have any doubts about how to look after pregnant staff and stay safely in line with health & safety guidance, they should make sure to seek expert advice.

*Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula which provides HR and health & safety support for small businesses.

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