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

This advice should be read in conjunction with the latest Regulations issued by the Department of Health on 7 January 2021. Click on the link below to view:

As an employer, you have a legal duty to protect workers from harm. As part of your Coronavirus (Covid-19) risk assessment you should consider the risk to workers who are particularly vulnerable to Coronavirus and put in place controls to reduce their risk. The following gives information that will assist in that process. 

Protecting vulnerable workers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (Updated 7 January 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, the government defined some people as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ – see above link. This group had been previously described as ‘shielded or shielding’ and are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus

Whilst in Northern Ireland shielding continues to be paused, these individuals, nevertheless, continue to be at risk. The emergence in December of a new variant of the virus which is more transmissible along with increased demands on health and social care services means there is now a heightened level of risk for people in this category.   The Department of Health for Northern Ireland issued Revised Advice on 23 December 2020 regarding ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ people including advice about attending workplaces. Click on the link below to view the revised advice:

Previously, the advice had been that ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ people should work from home if possible, but that it was safe to attend work if proper measures to ensure social distancing were in operation in the workplace. However from 26 December, clinically extremely vulnerable people who are working and are unable to do so from home are advised not to attend the workplace. The full advice for all ‘vulnerable people’ including useful links can be accessed at the link below. The Chief Medical Officer (CM0) will write to people who are ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to advise them of this change. Anyone who cannot attend work following this new guidance will be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay, and can use the CMO letter as evidence for their employer as was the case when shielding was introduced at the start of the pandemic. Pending receipt of the new letter, people can use their original letters as evidence.

However this is advice only. People are free to make their own judgements about whether or not they should attend work, depending on the Covid security of their working environment. However, the general restrictions which apply to everyone must be followed.

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. 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.

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 workers who have been shielded, 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.

Likewise, individual risk assessments are needed for people who suffer from other conditions such as diabetes and other serious health problems. 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).

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.

Useful links: