Understanding Safety: Workers in Sensitive Risk Groups

portrait andy tilleard


EHS Consultant


There are myriad environments that people work in on a day to day basis in which they are able to work without undue problems, what most of us would consider to be a normal working regime. Although there are some more hazardous risk management issues that may need to be assessed and managed, such as working with chemicals, working in a confined space or a job with a manual handling element, in general these can be safely managed for the ordinary person. However, there are groups of people that are in the workplace that need to be considered as being outside of the normal context, people who present with unique, but well recognised risks that need to be specifically considered and managed from a risk perspective; these are what we generally call sensitive risk groups. For our discussions, these groups can be thought of as:

  • Children and young persons.
  • Pregnant, breastfeeding and post-natal employees.
  • Night and shift workers.

The Legal Framework

The legal framework that requires an employer to have arrangements in place for the effective management of sensitive risk groups is based upon the general requirements of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005, specifically in Section 8 of Part 2, Chapter 1 – General Duties. There are a number of clauses in this section which are relevant to all workers, including sensitive risk groups but the only explicit reference to sensitive groups in the 2005 Act is in section 10 which relates to instruction, training and the supervision of employees. Sub-clause 10(d)(i) states “… in the case of— (i)   a class or classes of particularly sensitive employees to whom any of the relevant statutory provisions apply…the employees concerned are protected against the dangers that specifically affect them” 1

The General Application regulations address in more detail the specific requirements for the three specified risk groups in Part 6 – Sensitive Risk Groups, with each risk group being given a dedicated chapter detailing their specific arrangement’s.

In addition, the protection of children and young persons also includes reference to Schedule 7 in the General Application regulations as a part of the risk assessment process. This is important because Part A which addresses a list of agents, processes and Part B, which addresses work processes and activities must be considered for this risk group outside of any other general workplace risk assessment that an employer may undertake.

For the protection of pregnant, post-natal and breastfeeding employees there is also a reference to Schedule 8 in the regulations, which again lists agents, processes and working conditions which must be taken into consideration during the risk assessment process for this risk group. There is also a stated requirement for this risk group so that “An employer shall ensure that pregnant, postnatal and breastfeeding employees are able to lie down to rest in appropriate conditions.” as stated in Part 2, Section 24 of the General Application regulations. 2


The General Requirements

For all three sensitive risk groups, the risk assessment process is critical and all three of these groups have a specific regulatory requirement to risk assess working arrangements, including night and shift workers.


Protection of Children and Young Persons

What is the definition of a child and young person according to the regulations? A child is younger than 16 years of age whilst a young person is considered to be older that 16 years but younger than 18 years of age. For this risk group, the following general criteria apply:

For this sensitive risk group, employers must risk assess:

  • Issues where a lack of experience, awareness and maturity could introduce risk.
  • Issues relating to harmful exposure to chemical and biological agents and related work processes as stated in Schedule 7 of the regulations.
  • Take into consideration, preventative and protection measures as stated in Section 18 of the 2005 Act.

Employers must also inform young persons and children of the protective and preventative measures, including the parents or guardian of children and any risk assessment must address the issues stated in Schedule 7. In addition, there is a requirement to conduct health surveillance where this has been identified as a requirement.


Protection of Pregnant, Post Natal and Breastfeeding Employees

It is obvious that women in this risk group must be looked after by the employer.  In all instances, the employer must be informed in writing by any pregnant employee as soon as is practicable. If this is not done, the specific requirements of this particular chapter do not apply so this is an important step for female employees to take.

The following issues must be considered by the employer after notification for this sensitive risk group:

  • Risk assess and mitigate any exposure to the individual to any activity agent or process stated in Schedule 8 in parts A, B and C.
  • Avoid any risk to the safety and health of the employee by changing working hours or work activities where protective and preventative measures are not effective.
  • Night work should be avoided when stated by a medical practitioner for pregnant and post-natal employees.
  • Employers to provide information on any risk assessment and relevant arrangements to protect pregnant, post-natal and breast-feeding women.


Night Work and Shift Work

This type of work routine is not a normal schedule for most people and night and shift work has been recognised that this type of work regime can have a detrimental impact on people in terms of mental health, stress and on sleep patterns. In addition, these routines are often in conflict with normal family routines which can cause disruption to normal family life.

The following issues must be considered by the employer for this sensitive risk group:

  • Risk assess whether night work or shift work presents any particular hazards, including mental strain and then to take the required protective and preventative controls to manage identified risks.
  • Undertake initial and ongoing assessments (free to the worker) by a medical practitioner to assess and monitor a person’s health for night and shift work. Provide the results of these assessments to the employee.

Sensitive risk groups by their nature present a different set of challenges for both employers and employees, this is why the risk assessment process is so critical when dealing with these issues. It is vital that employers recognise that the current regulations do indeed have quite detailed information that must be taken into consideration, since ignoring or omitting these hazards from an assessment process can negatively impact people within these risk groups. It also illustrates why employees also need to be informed about their own duties and responsibilities when people transition into and out of these risk groups (excepting young people of course). This is especially important when employers have to manage young people and children in the workplace.

If you need advice on what steps you can take to safeguard against risk and protect your workers, please get in touch.

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