Where a pregnant employee's job involves heavy lifting and there is no lighter work available for her to do can the employer insist that she start her maternity leave early?

No. An employer cannot force a pregnant employee to start her maternity leave early. The employee is entitled to choose her maternity leave start date. The only exceptions to this are that maternity leave will commence automatically where the employee is absent from work wholly or partly because of a pregnancy-related reason after the beginning of the fourth week before the expected week of childbirth, or where childbirth occurs before the date that the employee notified as the one on which she intended her maternity leave to commence. In the former case, maternity leave starts on the day after the first day of her absence and in the latter case on the day after the date of the birth.

If the employee's job involves heavy lifting and there is no suitable alternative work available for her to do, where it is necessary for her health and safety as identified in a risk assessment the employer will have to suspend the employee from work on maternity grounds for as long as necessary to protect her safety or that of her unborn child. Prior to suspension, the employee has a right to be offered any suitable alternative work available. This means work that is of a kind both suitable in relation to her and appropriate for her to do in the circumstances, and to which terms and conditions of employment not substantially less favourable than her own apply. If the employee is suspended on maternity grounds because there is no suitable alternative work available, she is entitled to remuneration at the rate of a week's pay for each week of suspension.