The clinically extremely vulnerable are considered to be at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and yet research by disability charity Scope found that 22% of disabled employees have had their requests to alter working patterns declined.
So can the clinically vulnerable safely be at work? And what can you, as an employer, do to achieve the outcome that not only best serves your business, but also looks after the individual employee?
First, you need to know which of your employees is clinically extremely vulnerable. Help is at hand in the form of the UK government's guidance. Those employees will have been directly contacted by the NHS to confirm their status. It is important to bear in mind the distinction between those employees and those who are clinically vulnerable. Public Health England's report Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19 identifies the following higher risk groups:
- older males
- those with a high BMI
- those with certain underlying conditions such as diabetes
- people from some BAME backgrounds.
These groups are said to be clinically vulnerable. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirms no additional measures are required for the clinically vulnerable, but you must stringently apply existing controls (such as hand hygiene, social distancing, etc).
This position is supported by the Consensus Statement issued this week by PHE, the HSE and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, which looked specifically at ethnic minority groups. Calling for a coherent and culturally competent response, the statement recommends, 'with moderate confidence that all individuals, including those from ethnic minority groups, should have the same approach to risk management in the workplace'.
2. Risk assessment
For each clinically extremely vulnerable employee, create a risk assessment, which takes into account their particular condition but also the rigours of their usual job role. Document this and use it as a starting point for your decision-making when managing the individual’s work.
3. Seek guidance
Since lockdown first eased, there has been a deluge of new guidance for employers to digest and implement, but keeping abreast of the latest versions is vital. Consider not just government guidance and that of the HSE, but also the invaluable learning available from specialist groups, with expertise in the particular conditions you may be managing. Many charities have dedicated resources to help.
4. Work location
Where an employee is clinically extremely vulnerable, they should continue to work from home where possible. Don’t forget, you should risk assess this too and provide support with ergonomic and mental health and wellbeing concerns.
5. Consider the alternatives
Some employees may not be able to work at home or cannot do their usual job role because of their particular vulnerability. Where this is the case, is there an alternative role they can fulfil? Currently, many of these challenging discussions have been deferred, with the furlough scheme providing the financial support employers need to delay this decision. With the scheme now extended to March 2021, for many employers this will be a dilemma they hope to fudge until employees have been vaccinated.
Where employees are required to be at the workplace, engage with them early. What are their concerns? How can you support them? Listen to what they say and invite their suggestions as to ways of working that not only meet business needs but also achieve both COVID-19 compliance and peace of mind for the individual. The more of a joint effort this can be, the greater the likely success.
7. Explain control measures
Having identified the working method for the individual, talk to them again. Explain what you will do and why. This might include clarifying the practical boundaries of what is and is not achievable. Care will be needed to avoid any new arrangements from unduly burdening other employees, particularly if you have fewer present in the workplace than normal. A close eye on the demands placed on others is key.
8. Create a champion
You may consider creating champions, who can form part of the risk assessment process and can also be a sounding board for both you and the employee as new working methods develop. Invite the employee to keep talking to the champion as their return to work progresses. Current health and safety champions may be readymade for this role.
You should always monitor the success or otherwise of your health and safety measures and this is no different. As you and the worker adjust, be mindful of the need to keep your risk assessment under review and to update this and the associated control measures if needed.
10. Keep learning
Knowledge about the virus is advancing daily. Just as we realised the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on those from BAME backgrounds during the first wave, so the second will undoubtedly bring new details of those most at risk. Keeping on top of the latest developments is vital. And remember workers may become vulnerable – ensure you have a process to become aware of this. That means an open door to those who have a new diagnosis, begin certain treatments or become pregnant.
The extension of the furlough scheme will undoubtedly assist a great number of employers but it is clear that many employees are finding it difficult to achieve a working life that is acceptable to them. While the guidance provides general principles to work towards, only a case by case examination of the individual and their job role will enable this challenging balance to be struck.
Rhian Greaves is a regulatory lawyer for Pannone Corporate