Advice on protecting vulnerable workers during the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic

This advice should be read in conjunction with the most recent legislation issued from the Department of Health. Click on the link below to view:

Protecting vulnerable workers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (Updated 10 March 2021)

As an employer, you have a legal duty to protect workers from harm. As part of your Covid 19 risk assessment you should consider the risk to workers who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus (COVID-19) and put in place controls to reduce their risk. Information on people considered to be vulnerable can be accessed at the link below:

Supporting workers in higher-risk groups
 

Clinically extremely vulnerable workers

During the early phase of the pandemic (and up until 11 April 2021), the government defined some people as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable.’  This group had been previously described as ‘shielded or shielding’ and are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus.

This government advice changed on 12 April 2021 because there are now fewer cases in the community. From that date it is planned to change the advice to help ease some restrictions for clinically extremely vulnerable people.  The first step will be easing of the advice around going to the workplace. The full advice can be accessed at 

From 12 April, people who are clinically extremely vulnerable should continue to work from home where this is possible. If it is not possible, an extremely vulnerable person can attend the workplace, provided the employer has taken the proper measures to manage the risk and can ensure social distancing in the place of work, and that travel to work can be managed in a way which allows for social distancing.

All employers have a 'duty of care' for staff and, in practice, this means taking all steps they reasonably can to reduce risks and thus support the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff.

This change in advice will be subject to ongoing review of the status of the virus in Northern Ireland.

Information and advice for employers and employees on COVID-19 and working safely across a range of workplace settings is available at:

Further information for workers, employers and health practitioners may be found at:

People with concerns about health and safety in the workplace, should discuss these with their employer or human resources department.

They will be best placed to advise on how they have assessed the risk from Covid-19 and should discuss the measures in place at this time for an employee’s specific work, role, and workplace including, for example, if there might be scope to re-design the role, change the working pattern or location, or reduce contact with others.

Where concerns exist about social distancing in the workplace, or if further information is required people can refer to HSENI's website:

or call 0800 0320 121 to speak to someone about it.

Clinically vulnerable   

Some people are considered to be ‘vulnerable’ but not ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ in relation to Covid-19. People in this category include those aged over 70, pregnant women and people who suffer from certain underlying health conditions. For more information please see the following link:

Other vulnerable people

A report from Public Health England (Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of Covid-19) shows that some groups of people may be at more risk of being infected and/or to suffer from an adverse outcome if infected. The higher-risk groups include those who:

  • are older males
  • have a high body mass index (BMI)
  • have health conditions such as diabetes are from some Black, Asian or minority ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds

The report from Public Health England can be viewed at the following link:

In response to this new evidence the Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain (HSE), Public Health England and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine have recently issued a Consensus Statement highlighting the need for consistency in the approach to risk assessments for Covid-19 across workplaces and reminding employers of sources of health advice.

To view this Consensus Statement please see the following link:

Health and Safety Regulations

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (NI) 2000 set out the duties of employers and the self-employed with regard to hazard identification and subsequent risk assessment. This legal framework has always required that employers, in carrying out risk assessments, should take account of workers who might be vulnerable. Consequently, risk assessments for Covid-19 should include consideration of the workplace risks and of individual risk factors in workers themselves with particular emphasis on the categories outlined above.

Employers also have a specific responsibility to protect the health and safety of pregnant women who are working. This responsibility is contained in the above regulations which require employers to carry out risk assessments. Pregnant women of any gestation should not be required to continue working if this is not supported by the risk assessment. Pregnant women are considered ‘clinically vulnerable’ or in some cases ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to coronavirus (COVID-19), and therefore require special consideration as contained in government guides for different industries.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives( RCM) have published guidance on coronavirus (COVID-19) and this should be used as the basis for a risk assessment. Specialist advice from an occupational health department may be required.Where risks are identified employers must take reasonable action to remove the risks by altering working conditions or hours of work; by providing suitable alternative work on the same terms and conditions; or by suspension (if there is no suitable alternative work). Employer guidance on Covid-19 and employment can be found at Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists website.

In February 2021 government advice for pregnant employees was published. It is important that this is brought to their  attention and it can be accessed at the following link:

Occupational health advice for employers and employees has also been published jointly by the RCOG/RSM and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. It can be accessed at

Risk Hierarchy: Covid-19: Individual risk assessment       

Employers are already familiar with the risk-based approach to managing health and safety. A similar system within a hierarchical arrangement can be adopted for Covid-19 risk with staying at home being the equivalent of elimination of the risk.

Specific control measures to control workplace Covid-19 transmission risk should be identified, implemented and monitored. Social distancing, engineering controls such as floor markings, barriers and hand washing are some examples of controls.  See further advice at the following links:

The overall risk assessment, taking account of both the workplace transmission risk and the specific risk to an individual due to a health condition, age, and ethnicity along with medical advice where required, will enable risk at the individual level to be determined.

This will also help identify any added workplace protective measures deemed necessary for a particular individual. Medical advice and/or individual assessment can be obtained from GPs or occupational health professionals. For professional advice and toolkits, please see the following link:

Returning to work: individual risk assessment

Decisions on returning to work for those who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable (shielded) or who are vulnerable for the reasons described above require an assessment of their individual Covid-19 infection risk in the context of the current incidence and their specific workplace, work environment and work activities. For more information please see the following link:

This means that for people who suffer from conditions such as diabetes and other serious health problems , the individual risk assessment needs to take account of the specific illness and its severity/treatment and the vulnerability of the individual to infection and to the likelihood of them suffering from more severe complications from Covid-19. This is because these conditions may vary in severity from person to person and they may coexist with other health problems.

The level of Covid-19 infection in the community is an important determinant of infection risk. Input from an individual’s GP, clinician or from an organisation’s occupational health adviser will be important in helping to determine an individual Covid-19 infection risk.

Supporting your employees

As with the management of all workplace risks, sharing of the findings of the risk assessment and providing information on the controls in place is essential. Listening to workers’ fears and concerns is also important.

Employers should engage with their vulnerable employees about their working arrangements and, where possible, enable them to work from home.  As determined by the risk assessment you may also be able to offer alternative duties or change working patterns temporarily. Where it is not possible for workers to work from home, you must regularly review your risk assessment, and do everything ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect those workers from harm.

It is important to explain what will be done to protect them, in making the workplace safe and in managing work-related Covid-19 risk. By consulting and involving vulnerable people in the steps you are taking to manage the risk of coronavirus in your workplace, you can hear their views and make sure changes will work. This is especially important for clinical extremely vulnerable workers and consideration may also need to be given to workers living with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.

Where working at home is not possible and, despite having done everything so far as is reasonably practicable, and yet doubt about residual risk exists an employer should seek a specialist occupational health opinion.  This should help inform decisions as it will take into account workplace measures to minimise risk, the nature and severity of the ill health and Covid-19 local incidence. The report may also assist employers with responsibilities under Equality legislation.

At this point if a difference exists between the employer and the employee or there is a disagreement without a local resolution, the involvement of the Labour Relations Agency may be of assistance. Please see section below (Other legal frameworks).

Vaccination

People who are clinically extremely vulnerable and those considered to be vulnerable are amongst the groups prioritised for vaccination. Vaccines provide a significant degree of protection though none of the current vaccines offer complete protection. It is vital that those who are clinically extremely vulnerable or have impaired immunity and who have been fully vaccinated should continue to follow government advice on reducing their risk of infection and they will still require special consideration in the workplace. This highlights the necessity for individual risk assessment and appropriate specialist occupational health input.

Government advice on immunisation can be accessed at the following link:

Other legal frameworks

As indicated beforehand, employers should be mindful of the particular needs of different groups of workers or individuals. It is against the law to discriminate, directly or indirectly, against anyone because of a protected characteristic such as age, sex or disability, race or ethnicity.

The nature and duration of a medical condition may mean that some people categorised as vulnerable may also have a disability as defined in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

Employers will therefore need to take account of existing responsibilities towards disabled workers and those who are new or expectant mothers.

In addition, the Law Centre NI provides free, independent, specialist legal advice on employment rights and has established a dedicated Covid-19 response team for Covid-19 related employment rights matters.

Useful links: