As we celebrate this years World Breastfeeding week, I am conscious of the inequalities of opportunity for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace and their babies. I am lucky enough to have recently returned after maternity leave to a workplace that is wholly supportive of breastfeeding. I have a nice private office where I can comfortably express milk as I work away, and colleagues who are unfazed by the whir of my double electric pump, as they pop in to my office for chats, and even bring documents from the printer so that I don’t have to unlatch the pump to do it myself. It feels uncomfortable to me that this is not a universal experience, given that breastfeeding up the age of two and beyond is both biologically normal and recommended by the World Health Organisation and most health experts.

The majority of working mothers take 26 weeks maternity leave. Breastfeeding in the workplace is explicitly protected by the Maternity Protection Act 1994 as amended for only 26 weeks following the birth of a child. Those who return to work prior to that, are entitled (by virtue of the Maternity Protection (Protection of Mothers who are Breastfeeding) Regulations 2004) to an hour a day of paid leave to breastfeed or express milk where the employer provides facilities for breastfeeding. Where there are no such facilities, the employee is entitled to a reduction in working hours, without loss of pay. There is no obligation on employers to provide these facilities unless it comes at nominal cost.

Employment contracts and individual workplace policies may provide for further protections for the breastfeeding relationship, but these are not widespread, leading to many mothers expressing milk on their lunch break in uncomfortable locations, or indeed to bring their breastfeeding journey to an earlier end than planned. It is open to all employers to implement a breastfeeding policy that encompasses the supports needed for breastfeeding in the workplace. This office can assist employers who wish to become leaders in family friendly workplaces by developing a robust breastfeeding policy tailored to suit the individual work environment.

The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations (SI No 299 of 2007) provides that employers are obliged to conduct a hazard assessment when an employee returns to work while breastfeeding, within 26 weeks of giving birth. However, there is a general obligation under the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to provide a safe working environment. Breastfeeding mothers, regardless of the time since they have given birth are at risk of engorgement, blocked ducts and mastitis if they do not regularly feed their baby or express milk. There may also be other workplace specific risks for the mother or the baby, beyond 26 weeks post-partum. For this reason, all employers with breastfeeding employees should conduct a risk assessment.

If the work gives rise to a risk that cannot be mitigated the employer must temporarily adjust the working conditions or the working hours. If this is not feasible, the employee must be transferred to other work, and if such is not feasible the employee must be placed on health and safety leave. Equality legislation would indicate that reasonable accommodation must be made so as to retain the employee in her role, and to avoid leave. Such accommodation could be as simple as the use of a private space to express milk or feed, and enough time to do so.

The Equal Status Act 2000 prohibits any discrimination or harassment based on gender or family status which includes breastfeeding, so employers should ensure that all staff are made aware that breastfeeding workers are protected from any adverse comments or treatment in relation to their feeding.

The above is intended for information purposes only, and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice. Please contact us on 01 -676 3257 for advice specific to your needs. We, at Fitzsimons Redmond, would be delighted to work with you and your business on ensuring that you are providing a family friendly workplace.

By Lisa Quinn O’Flaherty, solicitor at Fitzsimons Redmond