Article

Pregnancy in the veterinary workplace

While there are precautions that apply to most jobs regarding pregnancy in the workplace, being a vet in practice presents some rather specific risks. For many small veterinary businesses especially, the impact of pregnancy and maternity leave can be great so it’s crucial that all parties understand what provisions need to be made and where responsibilities lie – not only to ensure the physical and psychological health of the pregnant, working mother but also to safeguard good working relationships and limit any impact on the business.

Breaking the news

The law only requires an employee to inform her employer of the pregnancy 15 weeks prior to the baby’s due date but it’s advisable to – and most people choose to – do so much sooner.1,2 Apart from to avoiding questioning looks about the employee’s increasingly ‘curvier’ shape, giving employers as much notice as possible will enable early implementation of the correct provisions. Plus, the employer’s duty of care does not come into effect until written notification of the pregnancy is received.1,2 Some employers may choose to include a policy in their employee manual which requires employees to notify the appropriate person as soon as they become aware they are pregnant or, more commonly, after the first trimester.

Assessing the risks

‘Health and safety’ – often a dreaded phrase for employers but when it comes to pregnancy in the workplace, its importance is paramount. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (MHSW) 1992 state that employers must carry out a risk assessment related to the risks of all their employees at work and that potential hazards for ‘new or expectant mothers’ as well as ‘females of childbearing age that could become pregnant’ must be specifically evaluated.3

Employers are not required to carry out another official risk assessment when they are informed of their employee’s pregnancy but many may choose to do so to ensure their employee’s needs are adequately met.3 If an employer suspects that the original risk assessment is no longer valid or that there have been any significant relevant changes, then the employer should revisit and review the risk assessment accordingly. When an employer receives written notification (regulation 18 of MHSW) that their employee is pregnant, has given birth within the past six months or is breastfeeding, the employer should immediately take into account the risks identified in their workplace risk assessment and implement the necessary changes.3

Usually it is possible to remove or adequately reduce the risks in most veterinary practices but if not, the employer must temporarily adjust the employee’s working conditions and/or hours of work; or if that is not possible offer her suitable alternative work at the same rate of pay. If that is not feasible, the employee must be suspended from work on paid leave for as long as the protection of her health and safety, and that of her child, warrants.3

iStock_000013222957_LargeWhat are the risks?4-8

Risk evaluations should encompass physical, biological, chemical and psychological aspects of the job and these should be discussed with the employee. Employers should encourage pregnant employees to seek medical advice regarding their specific risks during pregnancy. While employers do have a duty of care, the decision about avoiding many workplace hazards is up to the employee – it is unlawful for an employer to stop an employee working in their usual capacity if it safe to do so, just because they are pregnant. Check out our article; Specific considerations for pregnant vets and their employers which discusses everything from work hours to zoonotic infection.

Physcial and practical considerations:

  • Risk of trauma and injury
  • Manual handling of animals
  • Shocks and vibrations
  • Excessive noise
  • Ionising radiation
  • Suitability of the work place/practices
  • Impact of physiological changes during pregnancy (such as loss of balance in later pregnancy, backache, the need for more frequent toilet trips etc)

Biological and chemical risks:

  • Infectious or zoonotic agents (toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, chlamydiosis, salmonellosis etc.)
  • Live vaccines
  • Hazardous chemicals/drugs (hormones, steroids, opiods, chemotheraputic agents, prostaglandins, anasthetic agents etc.)

 

Potential psychological factors:

  • Altered emotional state
  • Increased fatigue
  • Reduced ability to deal with, and potentially greater consequences, of work pressures

 

Maternity leave and pay1,9-12
Maternity leave can start 11 weeks prior to the due date and all employees are entitled to 52 weeks in total. Employees are not allowed to start back at work within two weeks of giving birth – not that many new mothers would want to return to such a demanding job so quickly. Statutory maternity pay (SMP) or maternity allowance (MA) is only payable for up to 39 weeks. To qualify for SMP, you have to have been continuously employed by your employer for 26 weeks or more by the fifteenth week before your baby is due, although this does not include self-employment. Proof of pregnancy is required to enable you to claim statutory maternity pay (SMP) – this comes in the form of a MATB1 form, which is issued by the midwife usually after 16 weeks of pregnancy.

Employees should notify employers of their anticipated start and end dates of maternity leave and the expected delivery date no later than 15 weeks prior to their due date. Confirmation of maternity pay and qualification for statutory pay can be discussed at this point. For the first six weeks of maternity leave, SMP is paid at 90 per cent of average gross weekly earnings (before tax and National Insurance (NI) contributions deducted). For the remaining weeks it is paid at a continuation of this rate or at £138.18 (accurate for 2014/2015) a week – whichever is lower.

Employers should provide employees with an SMP1 form if they do not qualify for SMP, which allows them to claim MA from the government. This would be a bit of an income drop but is non-taxable and exempt from NI contributions. Employees are still eligible for statutory maternity leave (SML) and SMP if their baby is born early, is stillborn after the start of the 24th week of pregnancy or dies after being born.

Rights9,12

Antenatal appointments advised by a registered midwife or doctor can be undertaken during working hours, with an entitlement of pay and time off. Employers are entitled to see proof of these appointments. Any contractual benefit received from employment such as holiday, housing or CPD must continue by law during maternity leave, even if the employee does not qualify for SMP. Pension contributions will vary depending on individual contract.

Returning to work9,10

Employees have the right to return to their existing job if they have returned to work before taking any additional maternity leave. If the employee has taken additional maternity leave, employers must offer her original job or a similar role with the same working terms and conditions. However, an employee can be made redundant while on leave if there are justifiable grounds for redundancy and there is no suitable alternative job available.

If an employee decides to take the full maternity leave, no notice of their return is needed, although it may be wise to do so. If they do not want to take all of their leave they must give at least eight weeks’ notice that they intend to return early. If an employee decides not to return to work at all she must give the employer notice in the normal way.

Just as with all employees, working parents are entitled to request a flexible working pattern in writing. The employer must consider the request and respond in writing with full reasons for the decision if the request is declined.8

Coming back on top form13

Returning to work can be a worry but there are a few things that can help the process. Up to ten ‘keep in touch’ days can be completed by the employee during the maternity leave period if both parties agree. This is usually paid at the employee’s standard daily rate but this is not a legal requirement and should be discussed and agreed beforehand. Online CPD can be a great way to get back in the game and boost confidence. Most importantly, both employees and employers should feel able to voice any concerns about the ‘returning to work’ process so that issues can be addressed.

While we’ve endeavoured to give a detailed overview of the complexity of the rights and responsibilities surrounding pregnancy in the workplace, this article should not be taken as comprehensive nor constitute any sort of legal advice. Employees and employers should always seek the necessary professional guidance.

Overall, if the appropriate procedures are put in place and communication between employer and employee remains open, then pregnancy in the workplace should not have any negative consequences for either party, their colleagues or the practice. We’d love to hear from those of you that have been pregnant at work – what were the biggest challenges? How did you structure your maternity leave? Or perhaps you’re a business owner who has had to make provisions for pregnant employees – were you aware of your rights and responsibilities?

References:

  1. https://www.gov.uk/working-when-pregnant-your-rights Accessed 12.02.2015
  2. ACAS Maternity leave and pay. Accessed 12.02.2015 http://www.acas.org.uk/maternity
  3. HSE New and expectant mothers – the law. Accessed 12.02.2015 http://www.hse.gov.uk/mothers/law.htm
  4. HSE regulations for new and expectant mothers that work. Accessed 12.02.2015 http://www.nhs.uk/planners/breastfeeding/documents/new%20and%20exp%20mothers%20who%20work.pdf
  5. Health and Safety Executive (2001). Working Safely With Ionising Radiation: Guidelines for Expectant or Breastfeeding Mothers, HSE: 3, 6. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1999/3242/contents/made
  6. https://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/anestheticgases/#C1 Accessed 12.02.2015
  7. Tommy’s Baby Charity (Date unknown). Toxoplasmosis problems in pregnancy.
  8. http://archive.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/zoonoses/lambing.htm
  9. https://www.gov.uk/maternity-pay-leave/overview Accessed 12.02.2015
  10. https://www.gov.uk/rates-and-thresholds-for-employers-2014-to-2015 Accessed 12.02.2015
  11. https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/overview Accessed 12.02.2015
  12. https://www.gov.uk/employee-rights-when-on-leave Accessed 12.02.2015
  13. http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/statutory-maternity-leave-returning-to-work Accessed 12.02.2015