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Health and Safety for Disabled People at Work

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Health and safety legislation should not prevent disabled people from finding or staying in employment so it should not be used as an excuse to justify discrimination against them.

Disabled people and those with health conditions, including mental health conditions, should be given the opportunity to both get into and stay in work.

What you must do as an employee

The main safety responsibilities as an employee are to:

  • take reasonable care of your own health and safety, and the health and safety of anyone who might be affected by the work you are doing
  • co-operate with your employer on health and safety issues. This includes listening and following the instructions and training you are given, while using any safety equipment provided
  • inform your employer or manager if you see something that might harm you or someone else

Your employer must manage the workplace risks to the health and safety of all their employees and they must include you in any relevant health and safety information and training.

You do not have to disclose your disability to your employer and they have no right to insist on your giving them further details, even if you have already told them about your disability. However, you should consider the following facts before making this decision:

  • Workers with a disability are protected under the Equality Act 2010. This makes it unlawful for employers to treat them less favourably than other employees for any reason connected to their disability
  • Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled workers are not disadvantaged in comparison to non-disabled employees when doing their jobs
  • If an employer does not know about your disability, they will not be able to take any necessary action to protect you from harm

Working with your employer to create a safe workplace

Your employer may need to involve others (such as specialists or your doctor) to understand:

  • any effects your disability may have on workplace health and safety
  • how those effects can be minimised through reasonable adjustments

Your employer can only approach others if you have given consent and they should involve you in the process (such as telling you the recommendations made by a specialist).

Employers should discuss general workplace safety with employees. Talking about your disability or health condition with your employer may lead to helpful solutions.

Reasonable adjustments may also be provided for employees with mental health conditions, including those linked to stress, and employees and employers can benefit from working together to discuss solutions. You can find information about support with stress and mental health at work.

Employer responsibilities

As an employer you are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of all of your employees, whether they have a disability or not.

Disability is not always obvious so you might not realise a worker is disabled or they might choose not to tell you, particularly if their disability has no impact on their ability to do their job.

Workers do not have to tell you unless they have a disability that could foreseeably affect the safety of themselves or anyone else connected to their work. If they do not tell you and there are no obvious indicators of any disability, you are not under any obligation to make workplace adjustments.

You have a duty to consult with your employees (whether directly or through their representatives) on issues relating to health and safety. These discussions reflect good safety practice because employees have day-to-day understanding of the job, so they are likely to have good ideas on keeping themselves and others safe.

Reviewing risk assessments

Risk assessments help employers manage risks caused through work activity and your workplace risk assessment should be regularly reviewed. There is no legal requirement o carry out a separate risk assessment specific to a disabled person. But, if you become aware of a worker or others (for example a visitor) with a disability, you should review your existing risk assessment to make sure it covers any risk to them.

Disabilities can affect people in very individual ways and can often be supported through workplace adjustments so you should not make assumptions about disabled people or introduce blanket policies.

An unnecessary blanket policy would be banning all workers with the same health condition from doing particular tasks, despite the condition’s symptoms varying greatly in severity from person to person.

Examples of unnecessary and inaccurate assumptions

“If I employ someone with a disability it will be expensive”
Many of the reasonable adjustments required by equality law do not incur costs

“My driver has lost an arm so they can no longer drive”
Steering wheels can be modified or replaced (for example with a joystick)

“I can’t employ a deaf person because they can’t be warned of fire”
Flashing lights can supplement sirens and bells

“A person with a mental health condition can’t do a demanding job.”
People with mental health conditions can be effective in demanding jobs, as long as the risks are managed and they are supported so their role does not become stressful

Making reasonable adjustments

Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers. The aim of this duty under law is to ensure that, as far as is reasonable, disabled workers have the same access to everything involved in doing and keeping a job as non-disabled workers.

Meeting this duty may mean removing any physical barriers to working and/or providing extra support for disabled people. In many cases the adjustments will be simple, straightforward, and low-cost.

Employers are not required to do more than what is considered reasonable (for example improving access by installing a ramp, changing the layout, adapting work equipment or letting a wheelchair user work on the ground floor). What might be considered reasonable will depend, among other things, on the size and nature of the business.

There are very few cases where health and safety law requires the exclusion of specific groups of people from certain types of work activity. While work in hazardous situations cannot always be eliminated, it can often be substantially reduced with comparatively little cost.

Through reasonable adjustments, and reviews when circumstances change, risks can be managed by:

  • reallocating certain elements of the work activity to other colleagues
  • rescheduling duties to more suitable times
  • providing suitable alternative equipment (for example automated equipment to reduce manual handling)

People with mental health conditions, including those linked to stress, may also require adjustments in the workplace. By working together with employees, employers can develop solutions to keep people at work while managing any foreseeable risk. There is more information in HSE’s guidance on stress and mental health.

Seeking specialist advice

In addition to discussing workplace adjustments with disabled workers, you may need specialist help to understand the effects of their disability on workplace health and safety.

You can seek help on disabilities and health conditions, and how to accommodate them, by contacting occupational health services and medical professionals.

It is important to note that employees are under no obligation to reveal details of their disability and you cannot insist on them doing so. You must also get their consent before approaching specialists and should involve them in that process, sharing any information and recommendations provided by doctors etc.

Relevant legislation

Health and safety is sometimes used as an excuse to justify discrimination against disabled workers. This should not happen.

While there are no health and safety regulations specific only to disabled people, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 requires every employer to protect all workers from the risk of injury or harm at work, so far as is reasonably practicable. This includes disabled workers and also covers risk to people who may be affected by the work (for example visitors).

‘So far as is reasonably practicable’ means balancing the level of risk against the measures needed to control it, in terms of money, time taken or trouble.

Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act provides a modern, single legal framework with clear, streamlined legal requirements to tackle disadvantage and discrimination.

Treating a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability is an act of discrimination. Whether the worker has confirmed they are disabled or the employer could reasonably be expected to know (for example the worker uses walking aids or a wheelchair), it would be discriminatory and so unlawful to treat them less favourably because of their disability.

Definition of a disability

Under the Equality Act, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on someone’s ability to do normal daily activities.

For clarification:

  • ‘substantial’ means more than minor or trivial (for example it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed)
  • ‘long-term’ means 12 months or more (for example a breathing condition developed as a result of a lung infection)

Reasonable adjustments under equality law

Equality law recognises that bringing about equality for disabled people may mean changing the way employment is structured, with the removal of physical barriers to working and/or providing extra support so disabled workers are not disadvantaged.

This is the duty for employers to make reasonable adjustments. The aim of the duty is to make sure that, as far as is reasonable, disabled workers have the same access to everything involved in doing and keeping a job as non-disabled workers.

Practical examples of how to promote disability equality at work

These following examples illustrate good practice. They show how taking practical steps and involving disabled workers in developing solutions can promote disability equality in managing health and safety.

Regular work pattern for an operative with epilepsy

A machine operator on shift work developed epilepsy and notified their employer, who was concerned this might increase their risk of personal injury or put others at risk.

They discussed this and the employee gave consent for the employer to contact their GP. Through these discussions they found the employee was more likely to have seizures if their sleep pattern was disrupted. A move to day shifts gave them a regular work and sleep pattern, while helping them better manage their condition.

You can find guidance on workers with epilepsy from Epilepsy Action.

Firefighter with diabetes

A firefighter who developed insulin-dependent diabetes was seen by an occupational health doctor to help make arrangements for them to return to work.

Once the firefighter could show they were managing their diabetes, they were carefully tested on some key tasks to check they could do them safely (for example using breathing apparatus). Blood tests confirmed their sugar levels were stable and they were no more at risk of collapsing than any other firefighter.

They returned to work with the following reasonable adjustments made by their employer:

  • restrictions on the emergency vehicles they could drive
  • regular checks by the workplace health service
  • provision of a fridge for storing their insulin

There is guidance on medical conditions, disabilities and driving.

Supporting a colleague with mental health problems

An IT worker wanted to return to work after being off sick with mental health problems.

Their employer helped them return, while managing and avoiding work-related stress by:

  • helping them speak openly about how their condition affected them, so they could work together on making adjustments and monitoring the worker’s wellbeing
  • allowing them to work a three-day week until they were ready to return to full-time work
  • arranging for their colleagues and supervisor to attend mental health awareness training so their team had better understanding

HSE has guidance on mental health and work-related stress.

Enabling a worker with sight loss to stay in work

An office worker who had recently suffered sight loss wanted to remain in work. Their employer arranged for them to have an occupational health assessment to check their ability to do the job. This assessment and discussions with their line manager enabled the employer to make the right adjustments, including:

  • a large-screen monitor and magnification software
  • changes to the workplace layout
  • making instruction manuals more accessible
  • reallocating minor duties to another colleague

There is more information on supporting workers with sight loss in RNIB’s Staying in work.

Becoming a Disability Confident employer

Employers are crucial to improving employment outcomes for disabled people. You can find guidance on supporting disabled workers and the benefits this can bring in the government’s Disability Confident employer scheme.

For more information or support, contact us on info@wpsafety.co.uk or 01268 649006.

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