Many women decide to continue breastfeeding their babies when they return to work.
The rights which women have at work while breastfeeding come from health and safety and equality legislation.
All employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees. Women who are breastfeeding have special health and safety protection under the same Regulations that give protection to pregnant employees. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 provide the legal requirements on employers to protect their employees who are or in the future could be a new or expectant mother.
It is important that female employees inform their employers that they are breastfeeding. The notification should be given in writing, as early as possible. When employers receive written notification from an employee that she is breastfeeding they must conduct a specific risk assessment which assesses if there is a risk to the woman’s health or safety or that of her baby from her working conditions or hours. If any risks are identified then employers must take action to remove, reduce or control the risk. If the risk cannot be removed employers must:
temporarily adjust her working conditions and/or hours of work (for example, breastfeeding/expressing breaks, a shorter working day, regular shifts); or if that is not possible
offer her suitable alternative work (at the same rate of pay) if available; or if that is not feasible
suspend her from work on paid leave for as long as necessary to protect her health and safety and that of her child.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 require employers to provide suitable rest facilities for workers who are pregnant or breastfeeding. The facilities should be suitably located (for example, near to toilets) and where necessary should provide appropriate facilities for the new or expectant mother to lie down. Guidance recommends that employers should provide:
access to a private room where women can breastfeed or express breast milk;
use of secure, clean refrigerators for storing expressed breast milk while at work; and
facilities for washing, sterilising and storing receptacles.
Breastfeeding women also have protection under the Sex Discrimination (NI) Order 1976. Indirect sex discrimination occurs when there is an apparently gender-neutral requirement or practice which disadvantages more women than men (or more men than women) and which cannot be justified on business grounds. In the case of Squillaci v WS Atkins (Services) Ltd, a tribunal found that a woman had suffered indirect sex discrimination when her employer refused to let her work part-time for six months. She wanted to work part-time to continue breastfeeding her daughter for a year because her daughter suffered from eczema and breastfeeding would protect her health. The employer was unable to objectively justify the refusal.
Breastfeeding women are also protected against sexual harassment which could include detrimental treatment or offensive teasing on the grounds of breastfeeding.
Further information on breastfeeding at work is available from your local CAB, from the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland on their One-2-One Helpline 0800 0320 121 or by visiting their website at www.hseni.gov.uk or from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland on 028 90 890 890 or from www.equalityni.org .
Siobhan Harding is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice