The information in this blog is correct as at 27 August 2020. For the most up-to-date Employment Law and Health & Safety advice to support your organisation through the COVID-19 pandemic, visit our Coronavirus Advice Hub, which is updated daily and contains a variety of free guidance notes, letter templates, checklists, risk assessments and more.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there has been much speculation and uncertainty as to who in society is most at risk from the disease.
As new scientific evidence emerges, we are continuing to learn more about the virus and, in turn, who can be considered ‘vulnerable’.
One group that has been discussed at length in regard to their susceptibility to the virus is pregnant women. In the early stages of the pandemic, pregnant women were classified as ‘high risk’; in other words, it was thought that they were more likely to become seriously ill from contracting COVID-19. This classification has since been downgraded to ‘moderate risk’ (otherwise referred to as ‘clinically vulnerable’) based on a lack of evidence to suggest any increased risk to them and/or their baby.
Does this mean pregnant employees can re-enter the workplace?
At present, the guidance for England seems to suggest that the recommendation to work from home where possible now only applies to those in the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ category, although this is contradicted by the stay at home guidance which applies to everyone.
The latest guidance for vulnerable employees, which includes pregnant women, is to maintain social distancing measures. As such, provided the workplace is COVID-secure, pregnant employees are able to return to work.
So what steps should employers take to protect pregnant staff returning to work?
For any individuals who feel they are vulnerable, or who the latest guidance identifies as vulnerable, it is recommended to undertake an individual risk assessment with them. In regard to pregnant employees in particular, even in normal circumstances, employers have a legal duty to undertake an individual risk assessment upon notification of their pregnancy. This is especially important where the work could involve the risk of harm or danger to the expectant mother or their baby.
Not only will this help you to determine whether it is safe for them to be in the workplace by taking into account their specific circumstances and the associated risks, but it should also provide reassurance and facilitate a return to work if the assessment indicates it is safe to do so.
Again, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), all available evidence suggests that pregnant women with no underlying health conditions are at no greater risk than other individuals, and there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 can transmit to their baby.
If the employee does have an underlying health condition, then you should follow medical advice from their GP.
In addition, the RCOG also points to a study of 427 pregnant women who were admitted to hospital with COVID-19. Findings showed that most women only required ward treatment and were discharged home well, and those who did become severely ill were in their third trimester of pregnancy (28 weeks). As such, the focus should be on promoting good hand hygiene (through sanitiser stations, well-stocked handwashing facilities and signage) and maintaining social distancing measures.
Other tips include:
In most cases, taking these steps should give employees the confidence they need to return to work. The importance of communication should also not be overlooked, as quite often anxieties can be laid to rest by a simple conversation, or by talking through the options to find a solution that both parties are comfortable with.
However, with perceptions of risk varying from one person to the next, it is likely that employers may encounter reluctance or even refusals to work from their pregnant staff. Given the additional protections afforded to pregnant employees, these matters should be dealt with carefully, and it is always best to seek legal advice to avoid potential discrimination claims.
Want to talk through your options?
If you’re struggling to arrange a return to work for your pregnant staff, confused about the legal position, or just want to confirm that you have taken all necessary precautions, our Health & Safety and Employment Law specialists can alert you to any potential risks and point you in the right direction.