Sexism and sexist biases including pregnancy and maternity discrimination mean that women in the education sector are losing out in status and pay.
Although many health and safety issues in schools are, understandably, seen as affecting men and women equally, it is often the case that women, and particularly pregnant women, are more susceptible, for physiological reasons, to certain hazards than men. It must be noted, however, that a workplace culture which values all staff, and provides decent working conditions for everyone, is likely to need to make fewer adjustments to accommodate individual needs.
The needs of women who may be going through the menopause must also be addressed by employers. In 2001, the TUC and the Pennell Initiative for Women’s Health published a study which showed that, compared with women’s health and safety generally, older women received very little attention and were more invisible to traditional health and safety.
General health and safety obligations on employers
Women employees are covered by legal health and safety requirements in the same way as men. The most important of these, all of which are covered in separate briefings, are:
• the general duties of care placed upon employers and employees by the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974
• the risk assessment provisions, which require employers to identify hazards, assess risks and take appropriate preventative measures, contained in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
• the many specific sets of regulations which supplement the above.
New and expectant mothers - obligations on employers
New and expectant mothers are covered by additional specific requirements under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The term ‘new or expectant mothers’ includes pregnant women, mothers who are breastfeeding, mothers who have given birth in the last six months and women who have miscarried after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Following notification of her pregnancy, the employer must, in accordance with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999:
a) assess the risks to the health and safety of the woman concerned arising from her duties
b) seek to eliminate or reduce those risks. If a particular risk cannot be eliminated, the employer must consider suitable alternative working arrangements. If this is not possible, the woman must be suspended on her normal remuneration for as long as necessary, although this course of action should be a last resort. The risk assessment must be kept under review during
pregnancy, as the possibility of damage to the foetus will vary at different stages and must also be reviewed following return to work.
In 2022 the TUC sought legal counsel in response to the HSE's guidance on pregnant workers, which did not advise for individual risk assessments. As a result, they agreed to change their position. The HSE has revised guidance on protecting pregnant workers and new mothers.
A checklist setting out the specific hazards that need to be addressed in a risk assessment for pregnant teachers is included at Appendix 1.
Lifting and handling
Employers have a duty to undertake risk assessments that are specific to pregnant teachers. This should include lifting and bending hazards since pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to back injury.
There are a number of infectious diseases which, if contracted by a pregnant woman, can pose a danger to the unborn baby. Pregnant women teachers may be more vulnerable than other pregnant women to contracting infectious diseases because they are in contact with large numbers of children.
• Rubella is an infectious disease which, if contracted in early pregnancy, can cause serious damage to the unborn child. Teachers’ conditions of service recognise that women teachers are particularly vulnerable. They provide for women teachers, on medical advice in the early months of pregnancy, to stay away from school on full pay because of the risk of rubella. To minimise still further the risk of contracting rubella, school staff who are planning a pregnancy should undergo blood tests to check whether they are immune to rubella or need to be vaccinated.
• Chickenpox can affect the pregnancy of a woman who has not previously had the disease. It can be more severe in pregnant than in non-pregnant women. There is a risk of the baby being adversely affected, which varies according to the state of pregnancy. If a non-immune pregnant woman is exposed to chickenpox during pregnancy, she should consult her GP. Immunity can be checked through blood tests. Contact with known cases of chickenpox should be avoided wherever possible.
• Slapped cheek disease (parvovirus) is transmitted via respiratory secretions and can occasionally affect an unborn child. If a pregnant employee knows she has been exposed, she should inform her GP or the provider of her ante-natal care.
• Pregnant employees need to take particular care when visiting farms at lambing time. The Chlamydia psittaci infection, caught mainly from sheep, can result in the death of the unborn child or premature delivery. Pregnant staff should avoid all contact with lambing sheep.
• Cytomegalovirus (CMV) affects those in close contact with children and can affect the nervous system of the unborn child. It is transmitted through blood, saliva and faeces. Transmission is easily prevented through simple hygiene precautions, such as hand washing.
There are other infectious diseases which can pose danger to unborn babies. General advice is published by Public Health England and further information can be obtained from local authorities.
Display screen equipment
There is no association between computer use and miscarriage/birth defects. Although it is impossible to prove that using a computer is 100 per cent safe in pregnancy, there is a wealth of research which has failed to find evidence of harm.
Pregnant women should, however, pay particular heed to their general health and comfort when working on computers. This involves taking regular breaks of ten minutes every hour (more frequently if necessary) and ensuring good posture (which may require adaptation of workplace equipment). Contact lens wearers sometimes find that they need to wear glasses for on-screen work as water retention in pregnancy can affect the shape of the eyeball. If this is a problem, an optician should be consulted.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1999 require that suitable facilities are provided for pregnant women or nursing mothers to rest. These facilities should be conveniently situated in relation to sanitary facilities and, where necessary, include the facility to lie down.
The Health and Safety Executive and guidance from the European Commission recommend 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
• facilities for washing, sterilising and storing receptacles.
Maternity Action, a charity which works to promote the health and wellbeing of pregnant women and nursing mothers, has helpful guidance on continuing to breastfeed on return to work
Post-natal depression is a relatively common condition which affects as many as ten per cent of women who have recently had a baby. Most women experience the ‘baby blues’ within the first week after the birth of their baby. They feel emotional and weepy but these feelings generally reduce once hormones settle down and mothers become used to the new demands of caring for a young baby. For some women the ‘baby blues’ don’t disappear and the symptoms become more distressing, developing into post-natal depression.
These are many possible symptoms of post-natal depression. They include extreme anxiety, feelings of panic, inability to concentrate, sleep difficulties and obsessive thoughts.
The good news is that post-natal depression is a treatable illness. Any mother who thinks she may be experiencing post-natal depression should see her doctor as soon as possible. There are many different treatments available, including anti-depressant drugs and/or counselling.
Many women undergoing fertility treatment will require time off to recover from the effects of medical procedures and drug treatment. Unfortunately, there is no statutory right for employees to take time off work to undergo fertility investigations or treatment. However, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) advise employers that time off for fertility treatment should be treated in the same way as other medical appointments. Therefore, where employees are entitled to paid leave to attend medical appointments, they should also receive paid leave to attend fertility appointments.
The NEU would expect employers to grant paid leave for these appointments. If an employee is signed off from work by a GP due to effects from the fertility treatment, this absence should be treated as any other sickness absence period by the employer.
Women undergoing fertility treatment are deemed to be pregnant at the point that the ovum is implanted. They are protected from pregnancy discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 including from dismissal or detriment on grounds of pregnancy once their employer is aware of the pregnancy. If the implantation is unsuccessful, the protection will end two weeks after the negative pregnancy test result.
More information is available on ACAS.
Lifting and handling for women
The Manual Handling (Operations) Regulations 1992 require employers to assess the risks associated with lifting or handling and take steps to eliminate handling operations or, where they are essential, to eliminate or reduce risks of injury, for example, by adopting an ergonomic approach, using mechanical assistance or team handling. The law recognises that women should not be expected to lift the same weights as men. All schools should have a policy on lifting and handling which should be communicated to all teachers.
Teachers, and particularly women teachers, should remember that lifting and handling loads, whether objects or pupils, is not part of the professional obligations of teachers, whether male or female. Back injuries, injuries due to slips, trips and falls, and injuries caused by dropping heavy objects are extremely common among teachers.
Teachers should refuse to become involved in heavy duty lifting and carrying work, such as furniture removals. They should recognise their right to refuse to carry large quantities of books or equipment between classrooms. Teachers
should not expect pupils to carry heavy equipment or piles of books. Employers should provide means of assistance, such as trolleys. Where storage arrangements require lifting and handling of items on shelving, stepladders or kick stools should be provided to avoid the risk of injury caused by stretching or standing on chairs or tables.
For various reasons, including the type of work they do, women can be at greater risk of back strain injury. Women tend to be concentrated in primary and special schools where lifting of pupils is particularly likely to be an issue. Lifting a human ‘load’ places teachers at particular risk as the child may move in an unpredictable way. Potentially hazardous situations include lifting into and out of vehicles, lifting wheelchairs up steps, toileting, washing, bathing and changing, hydrotherapy and emergency evacuation.
All teachers whose job involves lifting pupils are entitled to expect that:
• the employer carries out risk assessments for all staff, including support staff, involved in lifting and handling pupils
• the assessments take into account the nature of the situation, the size and weights of pupils involved, the degree to which they may either assist in a lift or actively resist lifting, and the individual capability of the member of staff
• assistance to be provided when required
• the provision of mechanical equipment such as hoists
• training in lifting and handling techniques and in the use of mechanical aids.
Ergonomics is the study of workplace design and its effects on the worker. Such considerations may be particularly relevant in assessing the working environment of female teachers. Early years classrooms are often the cause of musculo-skeletal disorders among teachers owing, among other things, to the small sizes of chairs and tables, and that women dominate the early years and primary school workforce.
Teachers spend considerable amounts of time on their feet in the classroom. It is recognised that long periods of standing can cause specific problems in the case of pregnant women, including pre-term birth, spontaneous abortions and slower foetal growth rates.
Jolly Back is an organisation that focuses on back care and ergonomics for teachers and education staff. They offer free assessments of school workstations and advice for teachers.
Women teachers often report concerns about the level of toilet and washroom provision in their schools. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require that men and women employees must be provided with separate toilet accommodation.
For schools, the School Premises Regulations 2012 provide that staff toilet facilities must be separate from those used by pupils. The only exception to these rules is that a washroom which makes provision for disabled people, which contains just one WC and one washbasin and which is capable of being secured from the inside and which opens directly onto a circulation space, may be provided for use by any pupil, member of staff or visitor to the school.
The following table sets out the level of toilet and washbasin provision required by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.
No. of women employees at work No. of WCs No. of wash stations
1-5 1 1
6-25 2 2
26-50 3 3
51-75 4 4
76-100 5 5
The Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) accompanying the Workplace Regulations states that sufficient facilities should be provided to enable everyone to use them without delay and that a more generous provision should be made if, for example, breaks are taken at set times which, of course, is the case with teachers. Provision should take account of other users of the facilities, apart from employees. Parent helpers, governors and other visitors should be included in calculations.
The NEU believes that split-site schools should be treated as separate workplaces as far as toilet provision is concerned. Accessibility should be determined in terms of both distance and time. The ACoP also sets out that facilities for the disposal of sanitary products should be provided.
The provision described in the table set out above, should therefore be seen as the absolute minimum. Deficiencies should be reported to the NEU Adviceline.
Passive smoking has been proved conclusively to constitute a health risk. Passive smoking can cause lung cancer and heart disease, trigger asthma attacks or cause nasal cancer, bronchitis and other respiratory tract diseases.
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 requires employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. Since 2007, smoking has been banned in all enclosed and ‘substantially enclosed’ public places and workplaces in England and Wales. This means premises that have a ceiling or walls at least half the way around, including doors and windows.
According to HSE statistics, compared to other industries, education has a much higher proportion of reported injuries to workers caused by acts of violence (nine per cent compared to an average of four per cent in all other industries).
Measures to make staff more secure include:
• provision of external lighting
• the prevention of working alone after dark in buildings remote from the main occupied area
• restriction of public access to the school grounds
• provision of personal alarms/panic buttons where necessary
• staff training on the policy and procedures for dealing with violence
• pooling information on aggressive students/parents
• encouragement to report all incidents.
It is not only in the workplace that women may feel vulnerable. Every week two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner. Employers can improve women workers’ safety outside work by assessing the risks to women, e.g. of attending work events after hours, and ensuring that women are able to travel to and from work safely. For further guidance and resources, see the NEU Domestic Abuse Toolkit and TUC guidance on domestic violence and work.
Working through the menopause
The menopause is an occupational health issue. There are an estimated 3.5 million women over the age of 50 currently in work. That number will rise as the retirement age for women increases over the coming years.
It is important that trade unions raise the issue in the workplace and make sure that employers are aware of their responsibilities to ensure that the conditions and culture in the workplace do not make symptoms worse. Women who are experiencing the menopause also need to know that there is someone they can go to discuss any difficulties they are having.
Although some women may experience particularly severe symptoms, which mean that they would be classified as disabled under the Equality Act, it is important to recognise that creating a decent workplace for all is essential as this avoids stigmatising individuals.
Menopause is directly linked with workplace health, safety and wellbeing. Many women experience problems around this time, which can be exacerbated by poor working conditions.
Menopause is not an illness, but changes in oestrogen levels can result in intermittent symptoms around this time including ‘hot flushes’, sweating, increased susceptibility to anxiety, fatigue and stress, and sometimes short-term memory problems.
Some women require medical advice and treatment such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Seeking medical advice about menopause-related symptoms may mean time off for medical appointments and/or treatment. HRT can benefit some women, for example, by helping to reduce risks of osteoporosis in high risk groups. Current research suggests that for some women HRT may be linked to health risks so medical advice and supervision is essential.
Normally menopause is a natural process involving gradual changes. It can, however, be sudden and acute if it results from medical intervention – for example, hysterectomy involving removal of the ovaries or certain cancer treatments. Women who experience sudden menopause, following serious illness or surgery, tend to experience more severe problems than others, and may require treatment and/or post-operative care to prevent further problems.
In 2011 the British Occupational Health Research Foundation published research by the University of Nottingham, which explored women’s experiences of working through the menopause. This showed:
• Many women found they were little prepared for the arrival of the menopause, and even less well equipped to manage its symptoms at work. More than half had not disclosed their symptoms to their manager.
• The majority of women felt they needed further advice and support.
• Workplaces and working practices are not designed with menopausal women in mind.
• Heavy and painful periods, hot flushes, mood disturbance, fatigue and poor concentration pose significant and embarrassing problems for some women, leaving them feeling less confident.
• Women are not comfortable disclosing their difficulties to their managers, particularly if those managers are younger than them, or male.
• Where women had taken time off work to deal with their symptoms, only half of them disclosed the real reason for their absence.
• Some women considered working part-time, though they were concerned about the impact on their career if they did so.
• More than half of the sample reported that they were not able to negotiate flexible working hours or working practices to the extent that they are needed to in order to deal with their symptoms.
• Temperature is a big issue for many women. Nearly half of the sample reported not having temperature control in their usual working environment. Some could not open windows or experienced interpersonal difficulties doing so in shared workspaces.
What are the issues and what can employers do?
Poor ventilation and high working temperatures can aggravate common menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and sweating, affecting comfort and health. Skin temperature can rise by up to five degrees during a hot flush. Hot flushes and sweating can also cause embarrassment for women teachers dealing directly with pupils, parents and colleagues. Another common menopausal symptom is dry skin and eyes, which can be aggravated by heat and poor indoor air quality at work, leading to increased risks of irritation and infection. Simple measures can help, such as suitable clothing, layered and loose, natural rather than synthetic fabrics, access to cold drinking water, adjustable workplace temperature and additional ventilation using fresh air or a fan.
Workplace culture, policies and practices can also affect the situation. Negative attitudes to older women, and actions that discriminate against women and the menopause, can harm physical and psychological responses and increase susceptibility to infection.
Ready access to suitable washing and toilet facilities is important. Urinary problems are common during the menopause and many women have recurrent lower urinary tract infections, such as cystitis, meaning that they need to visit the toilet more often. For some, menstrual bleeding can be heavier and more unpredictable at this time. Adequate workplace sanitary amenities, with private washing and changing provision, are needed by those concerned, as well as adequate sanitary disposal facilities.
To support the needs of teachers going through the menopause, the NEU recommends that employers should:
• consider the menopause when carrying out and implementing health and safety risk assessments and ensure that the working environment will not make symptoms worse (factors to consider include ensuring women have control over the temperature of the room where they work, adequate ventilation, ready access to rest and toilet facilities and to cold drinking water)
• ensure that line managers are trained to be aware of how the menopause can affect the emotional state of some women for many years and what adjustments may be necessary to support women experiencing the menopause (for example toilet breaks may be a particular problem for teachers as they cannot simply leave a class unsupervised)
• ensure that issues such as the menopause are highlighted as part of wider occupational health awareness campaigns, so that staff know the employer has a positive attitude to the issue and it is not something that women should feel embarrassed about
• make guidance on how to deal with the menopause freely available in the workplace, along with information about how women can get support for any issues that arise as a result of the menopause
• ensure that sickness absence procedures are flexible enough to cater for menopause-related sickness absence – women should experience no detriment because they may need time off during this time
• ensure that appraisal and capability policies and procedures are not applied in such a way as to discriminate unlawfully against women teachers going through the menopause.
The NEU has produced further detailed guidance on working through the menopause, which is available in the health and safety section of the website. ACAS also endorses the approach to the menopause recommended by the NEU. In their advice to employers for managing the menopause at work, they state that managers should be trained on the menopause, workplaces should have a policy on how the menopause may affect employees, time off for medical appointments may be required, and risk assessments should specifically consider the needs of menopausal women.
Women can help themselves by wearing natural fibres (man-made fibres exacerbate hot flushes and sweating), carrying a bottle of water, and eating regularly and healthily (research has shown that a balanced diet can help alleviate symptoms). GPs should be consulted about management of the menopause and pharmacists can advise on vitamins and supplements that may help alleviate symptoms.
TUC guidance for union representatives on dealing with issues around the menopause is available at: tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/supporting-women-through-menopause
Is the menopause covered by the Equality Act?
The symptoms of the menopause could amount to a ‘disability’, depending on the severity of the symptom and their effect on day-to-day activities. If so, the employer is under a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’.
Also, as the menopause is a strictly female condition, any detrimental treatment of a woman on grounds of her menopause could amount to direct or indirect sex discrimination.
Endometriosis is a condition where the cells like the ones in the lining of the womb are found elsewhere in the body, most commonly around the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Endometriosis affects approximately two million women in the UK. It can be a chronic and debilitating condition which can impact on a women’s life in a number of ways. The chronic pain and fatigue that endometriosis can cause may lead to women who suffer from the condition experiencing difficulty in fulfilling work commitments. Frequent short-term absence can occur or attempts to ‘carry on’ despite the intense pain that is being experienced. Some teachers may be happy to be up-front about their condition but it must be remembered that many women will find it difficult to talk about gynaecological issues with their line manager, particularly if he is a man. Where surgery is required, the after-effects can persist for a long time, in some cases many years.
What can line managers do to help?
A sympathetic understanding of the illness is crucial on the part of management. Each case is different but the NEU would expect the following to be given careful consideration:
• phased returns to work after sickness absence
• careful consideration of reasonable adjustments
• avoidance of the use of absence management or capability procedures.
Dress codes – safety considerations
Women teachers are more likely than men colleagues to be put under pressure to dress in a particular way. The most obvious example would be opposition to the wearing of trousers by women members of staff. In some cases, this would be more than an equalities issue. There may be safety considerations both for the member of staff concerned and the pupils in her care. Any such concerns should be raised with the NEU Adviceline.
Action points for safety reps
1. Make sure that you consult women teachers and staff during your safety inspections and when undertaking routine safety duties.
2. Give proper consideration to whether there are any health and safety issues at your workplace which might particularly affect women teachers and staff.
3. Ensure your school has a manual handling policy.
4. Make sure women members are aware of other NEU guidance that could be of assistance to them.
See appendix 1 and 2.