Pregnant at Work Frequently Asked Questions


Legislation Applying

I have just discovered I’m pregnant – from when do the regulations protect me from hazards in the workplace?
The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007, Part 6, Chapter 2, Protection of Pregnant, Post Natal and Breastfeeding Employees (from now on referred to as The Pregnancy Regulations)  apply when an employee informs her employer that she is pregnant, has recently given birth or is breastfeeding and provides an appropriate medical certificate.  As the earliest stages of pregnancy are the most critical ones for the developing child it is in the employee’s best interest to let her employer know she is pregnant as soon as possible.

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What other legislation provides protection during this period?
The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 and the Pregnancy Regulations, 2007 require that a risk assessment be done as part of the Safety Statement.  This is required in all workplaces.  The risk assessment should already have identified any hazards, which may present a risk during pregnancy.  The risk assessment specifically required by the Pregnancy Regulations should therefore, be a re-appraisal of these hazards. 

Also the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and Amendment Act 2004 give details on

  • Entitlements to maternity leave
  • Entitlements to clinic visits
  • Maintenance of job security
  • Health & Safety Leave
  • Health & Safety Benefits
  • Provisions to encourage breastfeeding

The Pregnancy Regulations and the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and 2004 give effect to the health and safety provisions of the Pregnant Workers’ Directive (92/85/EEC).

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Risk Assessment

What should the employer do when he/she becomes aware that that an employee is pregnant?
Once an employer becomes aware that an employee is pregnant, they must assess the specific risks from the employment to that employee and take action to ensure that she is not exposed to anything, which would damage either her health or that of her developing child. 

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What does assess the risk mean?

This means determining:

  • to what hazards  the pregnant woman is exposed
  • how often the exposure occurs and for how long

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Explanation of General and Specific Hazards?

What are the main hazard types to which a pregnant or breast feeding employee can be exposed?

The main hazards types are:

  • General hazards
  • Hazards specific to pregnancy
  • Hazards specific to breast feeding

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What do General hazards include?

  • Physical shocks - including direct blows to the abdomen
  • Vibration - of whole body, there are guidelines on vibration
  • Handling a load - there are guidelines on handling of loads
  • Noise – there are guidelines on noise
  • Excessive heat or cold
  • Movement and postures which are abrupt or severe or give rise to excessive fatigue
  • Ionising radiation
  • Non-ionising radiation
  • Biological agents – including viruses, bacteria etc.
  • Chemicals – including substances, which cause cancer, mercury, anti-cancer drugs and carbon monoxide.
  • Stress and/or bullying

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What are the hazards specific to pregnancy?

Unless the risk assessment indicates that there will be no injury to the employee or the developing child, pregnant employees must not work with:

  • Pressurisation chambers
  • Rubella – unless adequately immunised
  • Toxoplasma
  • Lead and lead substances
  • Underground mine work
  • Certain physically demanding tasks – heavy lifting, for instance

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What are the hazards specific to breastfeeding?

Unless the risk assessment indicates there will be no injury to the employee or the developing child, employees who are breastfeeding must not work with:

  • Lead and lead substances
  • Underground mine work

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I am breastfeeding – what are my rights in the workplace?

The Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004 provides that breastfeeding mothers will be entitled, under legislation, to paid time off for the purposes of breastfeeding or expressing milk in the workplace, where facilities are provided by the employer, or a reduction in working hours (on full pay) to facilitate breastfeeding where facilities are not provided.  The employer will be required to provide facilities where this does not give rise to more than a nominal cost. These are measures to encourage breastfeeding and not health and safety provisions. 

A booklet with information on how to manage combining breastfeeding and work is available from the Health Promotion Unit, HSE National Breast-feeding Coordinator, Ms Siobhan Hourigan, telephone 057 8697524.

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I am pregnant – does my employer need to provide a rest room?

Regulation 24 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations, 2007 states “an employer shall ensure that pregnant, post natal and breastfeeding employees are able to lie down to rest in appropriate conditions”.

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I work in a very noisy environment – can it harm my hearing or that of my unborn child?

There are no specific risks to new or expectant mothers or to the foetus but prolonged exposure to loud noise may lead to increased blood pressure and tiredness.  There are no particular problems for women who have recently given birth or who are breastfeeding.  Compliance with the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007, Part 5, Chapter 1, Control of Noise at Work should be sufficient to meet the needs of new or expectant mothers.

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I am pregnant/breastfeeding and work with radioactive sources.  What damage can they cause?

Significant exposure to ionising radiation is harmful to the foetus.  If a pregnant woman or a nursing mother works with ionising radiation sources, these can cause exposure to the foetus through ingestion or via contamination of the mother’s skin and transfer across the placenta to the foetus or by breastfeeding to the baby.  Work procedures should be designed to keep exposure of the pregnant woman as low as reasonably practicable and certainly below the statutory dose limit for a pregnant woman.  Pregnant or nursing mothers should not be employed in work where the risk of such contamination is high.
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How and where can I find information on the statutory ionising radiation dose limits currently applying to pregnant employees?

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, 3 Clonskeagh Square, Dublin 14 enforces legislation on ionising radiation in Ireland.  Telephone no. 01 269 7766 or visit their website at www.epa.ie

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I am working with non-ionising radiation – can it cause damage to my unborn baby or me?

Pregnant or breast-feeding mothers are at no greater risk than other workers when working with optical radiation.  Exposure to electric and magnetic fields when working with electromagnetic fields and waves within current recommendations is not known to cause harm to the foetus or the mother.  However extreme over-exposure to radio-frequency radiation can raise body temperature making the pregnant mother uncomfortable. 

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Temperatures

Can extremes of cold or heat affect my unborn baby or me?
When pregnant, women tolerate heat less well and may be liable to heat stress and faint easily.  Breast-feeding may be impaired by heat dehydration.  No specific problems arise from working in extreme cold but warm clothing should be provided.  Pregnant workers should take great care when exposed to prolonged heat at work, for example when working near furnaces.  Rest facilities and access to water would help.

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Biological Agents

What biological agents are harmful to me while pregnant?
Biological agents are known to cause abortion of the foetus, or physical and neurological damage.  These agents are included in hazard groups 2, 3 and 4 of the Biological Agents Regulations 1994 and 1998.  Many biological agents within these three risk groups can affect the unborn child if the mother is infected during pregnancy.  Examples of agents where the child might be affected are: rubella, hepatitis B, HIV, herpes, TB, syphilis, chicken pox and typhoid.

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What do hazard groups 2, 3 and 4 mean?

A “group 2 biological agent”is one which can cause human disease and might be a hazard to employees, although it is unlikely to spread to the community and in respect of these there is usually effective treatment available.
A “group 3 biological agent” is one which can cause severe human disease and presents a serious hazard to employees and which may present a risk of spreading to the community, though there is usually effective treatment available.
A “group 4 biological agent” is one which causes severe human disease and is a serious hazard to employees and which may present a high risk of spreading to the community and in respect of which there is usually no effective treatment available.

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How can I avoid the risks associated with these hazard groups while pregnant?

This depends on the risk assessment, which will take account of the nature of the agent, how likely contact is and what control measures are in place.  These may include physical containment, hygiene measures, or the use of available vaccines if exposure justifies this.  If there is known risk of high exposure to a highly infectious agent, then the pregnant worker should avoid exposure altogether.

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Is my employer responsible to carry out a risk assessment of all biological agents?

Yes, it is the duty of every employer to assess any risk to the health and safety of employees resulting from any activity in the workplace likely to involve a risk of exposure of any employee to a biological agent and to determine the nature, degree and duration of any employee’s exposure to a biological agent and to lay down the measures to be taken to ensure the safety and health of such employees.

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Chemical Agents

What chemical agents are known to endanger the health of pregnant employees and their unborn children?
There are about 800 substances labelled with risk phrases e.g. R40, R45, R46, R61, R63, R64 (see question below for meaning of individual risk phrases) which can only be determined following a risk assessment of a particular substance in the workplace.  If the exposure is below a level as set down in the Chemical Agents Regulations, 2001 there may be no risk in practice. The employer must assess the health risks to workers arising from working with hazardous substances. When assessing the risks the following legislation should also be taken into account:

  • the European Communities (Classification, Packaging, Labelling and Notification of Dangerous Substances) Regulations 2003
  • the Carcinogens Regulations 2001
  • the Chemical Agents Regulations 2001

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What do the Risk Phrases mean?

The Risk Phrases mean:

  • R40: possible risk of irreversible effects
  • R45: may cause cancer
  • R46: may cause heritable genetic damage
  • R61: may cause harm to the unborn child
  • R63: possible risk of harm to the unborn child
  • R64: may cause harm to breast fed babies

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Display Screen Equipment

I work for long periods at a display screen – is this harmful to my unborn child?
Pregnant women do not need to stop working with display screen equipment (DSE).  The provisions of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007, Part 2, Chapter 4, Display Screen Equipment apply to all regular users of DSE's.

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Health and Safety Leave

What happens when the risk cannot be removed?

  1. If after carrying out a risk assessment, a risk is revealed to the pregnant employee, the unborn or breastfeeding child, and it is not practical to ensure the safety or health of the employee through protective or preventive measures, your employer must then adjust the working conditions or the hours of work or both.
  2. If this is not possible, provide suitable alternative work. 
  3. If that is not possible – the employer should facilitate granting the employee Health and Safety Leave under Section 18 of the Maternity Protection Act, 1994.
  4. If an employee during pregnancy and the 14 weeks immediately following childbirth is regularly involved in night work for a period of at least 3 hours between 11.00 pm and 6.00 am or at least 25% of their monthly working time is performed in that period, and has a medical certificate stating that this may damage her health, she must be found alternative daytime work. If this is not possible the employer must grant the employee leave including Health and Safety Leave or extend the period of maternity leave.

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What is Health and Safety Leave?

If a risk is identified, the employer must remove the risk/adjust the work.  If the employer cannot remove the risk, the employee must be provided with suitable alternative employment.  If the employer cannot provide suitable alternative employment, the employee must be granted Health and Safety Leave in accordance with Section 18 of the Maternity Protection Act, 1994.  During Health and Safety Leave, employers must pay employees their normal wages for the first 3 weeks, after which Health and Safety Benefit will be paid from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Telephone No. 01 7043478.

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I am 6 months pregnant and my employer only carried out a risk assessment yesterday and has told me I will have to take health and safety leave today.  Should the risk assessment be carried out sooner?

Once an employer is aware that an employee is pregnant, (s)he must assess the specific risks to that employee and take action to ensure that she is not exposed to anything which will damage either her health or that of her developing child. 

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My employer has said that I must take health and safety leave and has not provided me with alternative work even though it is there.  I feel my employer is unfairly treating me because of my pregnancy – what can I do?

An employee has the right of redress to a Rights Commissioner in relation to a dispute which stems from a risk assessment and which relates to an action, which can be taken under Section 18 of the Maternity Protection Act, 1994.  Such a dispute would relate to the placement on Health and Safety Leave or the suitability/availability of other work in any sense other than the control of the risk to the health and safety of the employee.  Rights Commissioners can be contacted at the Labour Relations Commission, Tel: 01 6136700 at Tom Johnson House, Haddington Road, Dublin 4.

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Maternity Leave and Benefits

Where can I get information on Maternity Leave?

Maternity information can be obtained from the Equality Authority, Clonmel Street, D2, Tel: 01 4173333, lo-call: 1890 245545 or visit website www.equality.ie

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Where can I get information on Maternity Benefit Payments?

Enquiries regarding Maternity Benefit Payments should be made to the Maternity Benefit Section, Department of Social and Family Affairs at 1890 690690 or by email maternityben@welfare.ie 

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Role of HSA

What role does the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) have when dealing with pregnancy at work?
The HSA is responsible for enforcement of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007. Employers are advised that, in producing their safety statement, they should consider the possibility of pregnancy among employees.  The HSA also provides information on safety, health and welfare protection for employees who are pregnant, recently given birth, breastfeeding while working, Tel: 1890 289389. The HSA also takes complaints from employees if an employer has not undertaken a risk assessment or provided a safety statement. The HSA may intervene by advising the employer of the guidelines on implementing the Pregnancy Regulations or by a visit, verbal or written advice or the issuing of an enforcement notice on the employer.

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Special Hazards

My job consists of working in pressurised enclosures occasionally – can this affect my health while pregnant?

Pregnant workers should not work in compressed air.  People who work in compressed air are at risk of developing the bends.  This is due to free bubbles of gas in the circulation.  It is not clear whether pregnant women are more at risk of the bends than any worker engaged in this work but such gas bubbles could seriously harm the foetus.  For those who have recently given birth there is a small increase in the risk of the bends.  There is no physiological reason why a breast-feeding mother should not work in compressed air. 

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What about diving while pregnant?

Pregnant workers are advised not to dive at all during pregnancy due to the possible effects of exposure to a hyperbaric environment on the foetus.  Pregnancy is viewed as a medical reason not to dive.  The Diving at Work Regulations include the provision that if a diver knows of any medical reason why they should not dive, they should disclose it to the dive supervisor and/or refrain from diving.  The Diving at Work Regulations also require all divers to undertake an annual medical examination.

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My work involves occasional underground mining work – is this harmful while pregnant?

Mines often have difficult physical conditions and females may not be engaged in manual work in underground mines.  However females who do not perform manual work but who hold management positions, are employed in health and welfare services, are undergoing training or go underground occasionally may do so.

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Contacts and References

Where can I find Useful Contacts and References

Guide to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007. Chapter 2 of Part 6, Protection of Pregnant, Post Natal and Breastfeeding Employees

Safety Toolkit and Short Guide to the General Application Regulations 2007, Small Business Edition from HSA at www.hsa.ie

Equality Authority, Clonmel Street, D2, Tel: 01 4173333, lo-call: 1890 245545 or visit website www.equality.ie


Maternity Benefit Section, Department of Social and Family Affairs at 1890 690690 or by email maternityben@welfare.ie

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