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Protect vulnerable workers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

As an employer, you have a legal duty to protect workers from harm. You should make sure you consider the risk to workers who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus (COVID-19) and put controls in place to reduce that risk.

Supporting workers in higher-risk groups
Accessing COVID-secure precautions
Clinically extremely vulnerable workers
Supporting clinically extremely vulnerable workers returning to work
Pregnant workers

Supporting workers in higher-risk groups

The Public Health England report 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 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

Public Health England, supported by HSE and the Faculty of Medicine, have worked together to consider strategies to lessen workplace risks of COVID-19 for BAME groups. This work has been reflected in the Equalities Minister’s report.

There are currently no expectations of additional controls specifically for these groups. But make sure your existing controls (social distancing, good hygiene and cleaning, ventilation, supervision etc) are applied strictly. As an employer, you should support these individuals/groups in your workforce by ensuring:

  • you emphasise the importance of individual and wider workforce engagement, buy-in and cooperation to ensure controls are applied stringently
  • they have individual discussions with their managers around their particular concerns
  • you/they discuss the risk management measures you have put in place to minimise transmission to keep them, and others, safe
  • you explain the controls you will put/already have in place to protect them and other workers

If you work for yourself, you need to follow government guidance on working safely while maintaining a COVID-secure environment.

Accessing COVID-secure precautions

Employers should ensure all workers, including those in higher-risk groups, are able to access all the protections that are necessary, eg during night shifts, when working remotely or working alone. This might include access to personal protective equipment (PPE) stocks or cleaning materials.

Clinically extremely vulnerable workers

During the pandemic, the government has defined some people as clinically extremely vulnerable (previously described as shielded).

These workers are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus. From 2 December 2020, the national restrictions have changed and been replaced with tiers of local restrictions. Clinically extremely vulnerable workers are strongly advised to work from home because the risk of exposure to the virus may be significantly higher.

You can find guidance on who is clinically extremely vulnerable and what further support may be available from Public Health EnglandHealth Protection Scotland and Public Health Wales.

Supporting clinically extremely vulnerable workers at work

You should talk to clinically extremely vulnerable workers about their working arrangements and, where possible, enable them to work from home. 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 COVID-secure.

By consulting and involving clinically extremely vulnerable people in the steps you are taking to manage the risk of coronavirus in your workplace, you can hear their ideas and make sure changes will work, for example doing tasks where strict social distancing guidelines can be followed. This also applies to workers living with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.

You can find more advice on shielding and protecting vulnerable people on GOV.UK.

Further advice on employment rights is available on the Acas website or by calling the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100.

Pregnant workers

During the pandemic, pregnant workers have been advised to follow strict social distancing to reduce the risk of severe illness from coronavirus.

There is a long-standing requirement for employers to put in place measures to ensure workplace safety where a significant health and safety risk is identified for a new or expectant mother.

Some pregnant workers will be at greater risk of severe illness from coronavirus. They are defined as clinically extremely vulnerable and they should stay at home as much as possible and work from home if they can (see Health Protection Scotland and Public Health Wales for any separate arrangements).

Employers will need to take this into account in their risk assessment.

If you cannot put the necessary control measures in place, such as adjustments to the job or working from home, you should suspend the pregnant worker on paid leave. This is in line with normal requirements under regulation 16(3) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

HSE has specific, non-COVID advice for new and expectant mothers.

Page last reviewed: 2 December 2020

Next review due: 31 December 2020

Updated 2020-12-01