Business guide to Coronavirus

How to protect vulnerable workers 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a new focus on vulnerability. Just as employers in some industries – such as tourism – have been more vulnerable than others, workers too have found themselves on a playing field that’s far from level, and employers need to be aware of this during the ‘back to work’ phase.

Recognising vulnerability to coronavirus

Recognising vulnerable workers and the higher levels of risk they face is the first step to addressing the issues and making the workplace equally safe for all.

Some workers are more vulnerable to illness because of their jobs – for example, with the spread of coronavirus a sharp divide appeared between workers who were able to continue their work from home, and those with no such luck, like bus drivers, whose work meant they had to be in contact or close proximity with many members of the public. Frontline health workers, likewise, have watched anxiously as thousands of their counterparts around the world contracted the virus.

Individuals can also be at higher levels of risk because of their age – those 70 and older, as well as people 65 and over who have one or more chronic medical conditions. People with compromised immune systems and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and older with one or more chronic medical conditions may also be more vulnerable.

Vulnerability to work injury and discrimination

The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately also triggered some of the uglier human impulses, with racist attitudes and misconceived blame for the disease taken out on people of Asian heritage in some areas. Managers should be vigilant in ensuring no-one at their workplace is subjected to discrimination or harassment.

Again and again, courts have pointed to the greater vulnerability to work injury of inexperienced workers such as young people and apprentices, as well as those with communication difficulties. Employers must also provide adequate information, training and the level of supervision necessary to ensure workers have understood instructions and comply with proper safe work practices.

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Protecting vulnerable workers from illness

An employer’s duty of care obliges them to protect workers, clients and others at the workplace from infection with COVID-19. The recommended practices, including physical distancing, cleaning and hand hygiene, must be observed at all workplaces, and particular consideration should be given to people who may be vulnerable in other ways as well. Follow the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. 

Risk assessments may be required. For advice on this, see Safe Work Australia’s website. Remember that risks must be managed as far as is reasonably practicable (rather than simply requiring someone to take leave), and that individuals’ confidentiality must be preserved.

Protecting vulnerable workers from injury, discrimination and mental harm

Limitations to literacy and aural comprehension can mean written or spoken instructions are not properly understood, and lack of awareness of the risks and safe working practices can compromise people’s safety. Employers may need to check if some of their workers are vulnerable due to problems understanding instructions. If this is the case, employers should take additional steps to overcome such issues.

Youth and inexperience in particular jobs can compromise the safety of some workers, whether due to overconfidence, low-risk awareness, physical immaturity, peer pressure, fear of asking questions or youthful bravado. Employers should be alert to these issues and make sure instruction and supervision are adequate to keep such workers safe. 

Cases heard by the courts regularly raise the matter of whether senior management has properly addressed situations where workers are being bullied or harassed – in particular, by their supervisors or colleagues. These situations can cause acute distress and disabling psychological injuries to some individuals, and ultimately prove enormously expensive for employers.

Vulnerability to adverse mental health effects is a perennial concern, but employers need to recognise that some members of staff may have experienced more taxing consequences of the twin health and economic crises than others, and take this into account. 

Similarly, employees recovering from or still dealing with an illness or injury may need additional care to protect them from work-related adverse effects. For example, if a person is undergoing chemotherapy, he or she may be at higher risk of illness or infection than other workers. This could become an issue, e.g. if employees have been hotdesking at the workplace. If someone is especially vulnerable to infection, they should not be required to use a desk or workstation regularly used by others unless sufficiently frequent deep cleaning is in place.

Gaby Grammeno


Gaby has extensive experience as a researcher, writer, editor and project manager on a wide variety of information products, including books, guides, reports and submissions.

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