Publish date

28 November 2017

Breastfeeding at work – Risk assessments

The obligations on employers to carry out risk assessments in relation to new and expectant mothers are well-established. Where working conditions might put new or expectant mothers or their babies at risk, employers must carry out a risk assessment. There don’t need to be new or expectant mothers in the workforce. The obligation is triggered if there are women of child-bearing age in the workforce. This doesn’t just apply to ‘high risk’ workplaces such as factories or hospitals. Almost all workplaces carry some risks to new, expectant or breastfeeding mothers. For example, common office issues such as sitting for long periods of time, work-related stress or long hours can all present a risk to the health of new or expectant mothers and their babies.

The recent case of Ramos v Servicio Galego de Saúde looked in detail at the employer’s obligation to carry out a risk assessment. In that case, Ms Ramos, a nurse who was breastfeeding her four month old baby, notified her employer that she was concerned that her working conditions could have an impact on her and her baby’s health. While some of the concerns were specific to a hospital, she also had concerns about stress and the effect of working a shift pattern rather than regular hours. The hospital issued a report stating that her job role did not pose any risks in relation to breastfeeding her child. The report had been prepared as part of a general risk assessment and in consultation with both worker’s representatives and a doctor who specialised in preventative medicine.

The European Court of Justice found that the use of a general risk assessment for a particular worker was insufficient and that the hospital had been directly discriminatory in failing to carry out an individualised risk assessment for Ms Ramos.

The upshot of this is that in addition to the general risk assessment identifying potential risks to new and expectant mothers, where an employer is notified that a worker is pregnant, has recently given birth, or is breastfeeding, they must to carry out a specific risk assessment for that particular worker. It is not enough to rely on the general risk assessment.

Where an employer identifies risks, they should then go on to take measures to reduce or eliminate those risks where possible. Where risks cannot be avoided, the employer must be prepared to provide alternative work, or in some cases suspend the employer with pay until the risk can be avoided.

As a starting point for the general risk assessment, employers should be thinking in three stages:

  1. What are the hazards to pregnant workers, breastfeeding workers and those that have just given birth? These could be obvious, such as exposure to chemicals and machinery, or less so, such as inactivity or stress.
  2. Which of three categories of worker are exposed to those hazards?
  3. What steps can be taken to mitigate or avoid the risks to these workers?

Apart from ensuring that they are comply with their obligation to carry out a general risk assessment, this will also give employers a strong existing framework to use as a starting point when a worker notifies them that they are expecting.

For more information on the case, please visit: Otero Ramos (Protection of the safety and health of workers – Breastfeeding worker : Judgment)

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