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 COVID-19 and the Peer Support Service

Information and resources for healthcare professionals who are disabled during the COVID-19 outbreak

The RCN understands that if you are a healthcare professional with an impairment, if you are Neurodiverse and/or if you consider yourself to be disabled that you face additional challenges both in and out of work.

As the COVID-19 outbreak progresses you can find RCN position statements and guidance pertaining to COVID-19 and disability here. For further advice, follow the link to the COVID-19 FAQs. 

What should my employer do to keep me safe at work?

In advance of any potential return to work, your employer must carry out both an individual and workplace risk assessment to look at your role, your individual risk factors and the environment you may be working in. Please see our guidance on individual risk assessments for more information. 

Your employer should not be calling you into work to do a risk assessment, a discussion should take place over the phone/online. As part of the risk assessment, your employer may want to look at redeployment to areas where the risk of exposure is very low or continue with home working. It is natural to feel anxious when being asked to return to work after a long period off, so the RCN would expect your employer to be empathetic and listen to your concerns, offer support for your mental health and look at issues such as risks from travel to work and a phased return as part of the risk assessment.

If you have a disability, your employer will also need to follow the requirements of the Equality Act and make reasonable adjustments. If you are pregnant and have been shielding, your employer must take this into account when reviewing your pregnancy risk assessment. If the employer cannot put the necessary safety measures in place such as adjustments to the job or working from home, you must be suspended on full pay.

If you are concerned about the results of the risk assessment then please speak to you RCN workplace representative or contact us. You may also want to speak to your GP or consultant.  

All employers must take measures to make workplaces COVID-19 secure including taking all reasonable steps to maintain a two metre social distance in the workplace and having robust cleaning and hygiene measures in place.

The Society of Occupational Medicine has some useful information to support staff when they return to work. Please also see our risk assessment guide along with information from NHS People and NHS Employers.

Please see our Long COVID guide for more information on your workplace rights and for additional resources. 

Many health care professionals have impairments that could mean standard issue PPE is not effective. These include but are not limited to:

  • sensory impairments 
  • use of prosthesis 
  • the use of mobility aids.

For some, PPE is a disabling barrier, for example, employees who communicate well through the ability to lip read will have this communication route disrupted if colleagues are wearing face masks. 

Where there is a change in PPE requirements such as in response to a pandemic, new issues can arise for health care professionals who have not previously been disabled at work. It is essential that processes allow the opportunity for employees to discuss their specific needs regarding PPE and that they are supported by managers in this process.

The Equality Act 2010 (and in Northern Ireland the Disability Discrimination Act 1995) states that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees who meet the definition of disabled. This applies to PPE equipment and the processes around administering PPE. The RCN believes that reasonable adjustments should be granted whether this definition is met or not, on the grounds that reasonable adjustments help us to work to the best of our abilities. 

The RCN expects that all employers support their staff to make known their needs in respect of PPE.

Your employer should work with you to ensure that any risk of PPE affecting your impairment and ability to continue in your role is recognised and processes put in place to mitigate the risk. This may mean adjusting processes around donning and doffing of PPE, exploring options for adapted PPE and/or opportunities to fit PPE, and be confident that it is fit for purpose prior to use in a clinical setting.

The RCN expects that line managers undertake a workplace risk assessment and refer to Occupational Health for further advice if appropriate. Where adjustments cannot be made, temporary redeployment to work that does not require PPE should be considered.

Our publication Removing disabling barriers at work and our online guide on  health ability passports cover the benefits of a diverse workforce including those with impairments and the reasonable adjustments process. 

The Health and Safety Executive also provides guidance for employers and employees on reasonable adjustments

Raising concerns

If you feel you are not being supported or that your concerns are not heard, please see our section on  raising concerns about PPE. Support is also available from the RCN Peer Support Service