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Know your rights

Susannah Kirkman outlines the risks and rights pregnant women can expect at work

If you are pregnant, you are more vulnerable to certain workplace hazards than your colleagues, whether it's catching chicken pox or lifting heavy objects. Once you have informed the school of your pregnancy, a risk assessment must be carried out to calculate the risks to your health and safety posed by your job. Your employer must try to eliminate or reduce those risks, and may need to make alternative working arrangements for you if your current duties are considered too risky.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 say schools must consider the following issues when they are making a risk assessment for pregnant teachers:

* Are there clean and comfortable facilities for the woman to rest and, where appropriate, breastfeed or express and store milk? Is there somewhere for her to lie down, if necessary?

* Is the rest area smoke-free?

* Has the woman been offered extra assistance with lifting for the duration of the pregnancy?

* If the woman spends much of the day at a computer, does she have concerns about this issue? If so, have her duties been reorganised?

* Is the woman at particular risk of physical assault, by pupils or members of the public? If so, have measures been taken to eliminate that risk?

* If there is a possibility that the pregnant woman may be exposed to the rubella virus in the early months of pregnancy, has she been advised to consult her doctor? If the doctor so advises, she is entitled to remain absent from school on full pay until the danger has passed, although she may be required to teach in another school where there is no such risk.

Of course, you should help protect your own health by, for instance, having a blood test before you become pregnant to see if you are immune to the rubella virus, or whether you need to be vaccinated.

Chicken pox is another virus that can affect your own health and that of your baby if you have not had the disease before. It can be more severe if you catch it when you are pregnant, so you should avoid people who have it wherever possible. If you know you have been exposed to chicken pox, get your GP to do a blood test to check your immunity. You should also inform your GP if you have been exposed to slapped cheek disease (parvovirus), as this can also sometimes affect an unborn child.

And if you're considering a farm visit so pupils can see the lambs, think again. The Chlamydia psitacci infection, caught mainly from sheep, can cause the death of an unborn child or a premature birth, so pregnant women should avoid all contact with lambing sheep.

Lifting is another hazard as pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to back injury. This issue will obviously be of more concern to teachers who are working with young children or with pupils who have special educational needs or emotional and behavioural difficulties, as these children are more likely to move in an unpredictable way.

You should take special care if you are helping pupils in and out of vehicles, lifting wheelchairs up steps, toileting, washing, bathing, changing, or helping with hydrotherapy and emergency evacuation. All teachers whose job involves lifting pupils are entitled to assistance from support staff, the provision of mechanical equipment such as hoists and training in lifting and handling techniques.

For further information, go to the National Union of Teachers website, www.teachers.org.uk and look for 'Women's Health and Safety'

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