UNION CORONAVIRUS NEWS AND ACTION
Unite is calling for a full public inquiry after figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed workers in ‘low skilled elementary occupations’ (21.4 deaths per 100,000) were almost four times as likely to die from the virus as ‘professionals’ (5.6 per 100,000). The 11 May age-adjusted figures for the working age population show the highest number of deaths were recorded in the social care sector, with 131 deaths recorded. The second highest fatality toll was in taxi drivers, where there had been 77 deaths with a mortality rate of 36.4 per 100,000. Chefs (37 deaths, 35.7 per 100,000 mortality rate) and security guards (64 deaths, 45.7 per 100,000 rate) were also high on the deaths league table. ONS found that male workers had notably increased mortality rates in a number of professions, with security guards - 64 workers had died, at a mortality rate of 45.7 per 100,000 workers - being most at risk. Chefs also had a very high rate of death with 37 having died of coronavirus, a rate of 35.7 per 100,000 workers. ONS also reported 30 bus workers had so far died of Covid-19, at a rate of 26.4 per 100,000. Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said: “This is only an early snapshot of this dreadful disease but it is clear that lower paid workers often from a BAME background have been at the greatest risk of dying during the pandemic.” She added: “An inquiry is needed to understand if measures such as the lockdown was introduced too late and whether frontline workers were able to effectively socially distance at work, if effective cleaning regimes were in place and if workers were provided with the necessary PPE to properly protect them.”
ONS publication note and analysis of deaths in England and Wales related to Covid-19 by occupation the occupations in the UK that have the highest potential exposure to Covid-19. Unite news release. Morning Star. The Guardian.
Urgent action must be taken to address high Covid-19 death rates in low paid workers, unions have said. Commenting on the latest figures Office for National Statistics (ONS) Covid-19 statistics, acting GMB general secretary John Phillips said: “These figures are horrifying,” adding: “If you are low paid and working through the Covid-19 crisis you are more likely to die - that’s how stark these figures are.” He said: “Ministers must pause any return to work until proper guidelines, advice and enforcement are in place to keep people safe.” Transport union RMT demanded the government take urgent action, pointing out the figures show male bus and taxi drivers are amongst the occupations with a raised rate of death involving Covid-19. The union is calling for a National Coronavirus Safety Summit to agree a national plan to protect workers and passengers in the sector. “Among men, a number of other specific occupations were found to have raised rates of death involving Covid-19, including: taxi drivers and chauffeurs (36.4 deaths per 100,000); bus and coach drivers (26.4 deaths per 100,000).” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said that “despite the high rate of deaths in the bus industry, the government still has not convened a coronavirus safety forum for this sector, months into lockdown.” He added: “RMT’s position on this is unequivocal – we will not allow our bus and taxi members to be put at risk and are calling on the government to take urgent action to protect these key workers.”
GMB news release. RMT news release. ONS publication note.
Public sector union UNISON has said latest official Covid-19 deaths statistics show the need to reduce the ‘shocking’ risk of infection in care workers. Responding to figures published on 12 May by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing care home deaths linked to coronavirus have increased by more than 2,400 in a week, UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “There’s clearly no major slowdown in the devastation being caused in care homes, causing heartache for so many families. Not only those of vulnerable residents, but care workers who have suffered high death rates. This underlines why any return to work must be managed safely to avoid key workers being exposed to the virus as they travel, putting further lives at risk.” She added: “It remains vital that care workers are given sustained supplies of proper safety kit to stop the spread within homes. And the government now has to put in place an effective system of testing, tracking and tracing as quickly as possible.” Responding to ONS figures showing death rates involving Covid-19 are significantly raised among care workers and home care staff, UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “These shocking figures reveal how care staff are literally putting their lives on the line by going to work. Their jobs can’t be done without getting up close to the vulnerable and elderly individuals they care for in residential homes and in the community. Having access to personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential for employees and residents. It’s a scandal many care staff are going into workplaces where safety kit is still unavailable or locked away.” The death figures by occupation, released by ONS on 11 May noted: “Men and women working in social care, a group including care workers and home carers, both had significantly raised rates of death involving Covid-19, with rates of 23.4 deaths per 100,000 males (45 deaths) and 9.6 deaths per 100,000 females (86 deaths).”
UNISON news release and related news release. ONS publication note.
The prime minister’s haste in “actively” encouraging people to return to work “poses a serious threat to workers’ safety,” the TUC has warned. Pointing out that no work should start until a full, legally required risk assessment has taken place, TUC safety specialist Shelly Asquith said “the first thing to do is to talk to your workmates and your union if you have concerns about safety in your workplace. You should ask your employer to rectify the issues you’re worried about.” In a TUC blog post, she added “If problems persist, you can make a report to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).” But if there “is still a serious or imminent danger, you and your colleagues may have the right to leave work depending on the specific circumstances.” She highlighted section 44 the 1996 Employment Rights Act, which covers the right to leave and not return while ‘serious and imminent’ risks remain unresolved. According to the TUC safety lead: “It is important that you seek advice and support on taking action. You need to raise concerns with your union and employer first. Make sure you communicate your actions and reasons clearly to your employer and make a careful record of what happened, and get in touch with your health and safety rep or union officer.” Another part of the same law, section 100, provides protection from victimisation for refusing dangerous work. She notes: “If you are considering refusing to work because of a serious and imminent danger, know that you are not alone. Workers in libraries, the postal service and waste collection have already walked off the job over coronavirus exposure concerns. Be aware, though: All those who have acted have done so with the advice and support of their union. You need to be able to demonstrate that you have a ‘reasonable belief of serious or imminent danger’. Your union will be able to advise on your specific situation.” Latest figures from HSE indicate that prior to the prime minister’s 10 May call for most people to return to work, over 7,100 people had so far contacted the safety regulator to raise workplace coronavirus safety concerns.
LabourList blog. TUC/HSE Covid-19 concerns reporting form. Government return to work guidance. PCS news release.
Trade union reps can report coronavirus related concerns to the HSE by email, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Section 44 and Section 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
More must be done to ensure employers manage safe working properly, the TUC has said. Commenting on the ‘confusion and anxiety’ caused by the prime minister’s 10 May call for a return to work, the union body said: “The UK needs a safe and managed return to normal working. That means consulting properly with unions and employers on guidance, getting it out to firms, giving them time to implement it, making sure the right PPE is available, ensuring that our transport systems and schools are safe, and then announcing dates when people could safely return to work. This process must be gradual, and it must be safe – but that’s not what has happened.” In a blog posting, TUC head of communications Antonia Bunce, added: “This stuff really matters, because the impact of this government’s failures on workplace safety has already been horrific.” She said union pressure on government to improve its ‘poor’ first draft of the return to work guidance had worked. “We said every employer should publish their risk assessment – and the government will encourage employers to do this. We demanded more money for the Health and Safety Executive – and £14m has been allocated. We raised real concerns about the language and tone of the guidance – and are glad to see it is now tougher, reminding employers of their responsibilities and not just asking them to ‘consider’ taking action.” But the TUC communications expert warned “the new detailed guidance still falls short. Covid-19 will pose a risk for months to come, so it’s vital that employers manage safe working properly.” Risk assessments must be made public and the government must “get to grips” with the PPE crisis, she said. Unions want to make sure the extra £14m for the HSE - whose inspections and prosecutions have fallen by more than 80 per cent since 2001 - is “used to proactively get out to the riskiest workplaces and crack down on rogue employers.” But local authorities, whose safety enforcement capability has been decimated by Conservative funding cuts, enforce many of the highest risk workplaces such as warehouses, call centres and retail. HSE’s role “must be matched by local authority enforcement teams getting out to make sure shops and warehouses are safe,” Bunce said.
TUC blog. Prime minister’s 10 May speech. HSE risk assessment guidance. Thompsons Solicitors news release. UNISON news release and blog. Usdaw news release.
Scotland’s top trade union body, the STUC, has condemned the 10 May return to work speech by Boris Johnson as ‘confusing and dangerous.’ STUC general secretary designate Roz Foyer, commenting on the UK prime minister’s “woeful” management of the crisis, said the back to work policy shift came ahead of any official guidance on how workers will be kept safe. “His statement that all workers who cannot work from home should go to work will cause incredible confusion and massive concern. We urgently need clarity on how workers who cannot work from home and cannot safely attend their workplace will be treated. And at no point did he make it clear that he was talking about England only, rather than the whole of the UK. The strain on the delivery of a four-nation approach now seems intolerable.” Outlining ‘red lines’ before there can be any relaxation of the lockdown, she said: “We need to be far further ahead in testing, have a proper contact tracing system in place, have ready supplies of PPE for any workplaces that is to re-open, and have enforcement measures in place. Each work sector must be treated according to its distinct characteristics and governed by guidelines agreed with unions. And there must be no implied threat of loss of income for workers not able to return to work. The job retention scheme must stay in place with no further reductions in levels of pay support.” She concluded: “Unions will test the strategy of the Scottish government every step of the way and fight to ensure that the safety of workers and of the wider public remains that number one concern.”
STUC news release.
Employers who are unable to introduce adequate measures to protect staff from coronavirus should not reopen their workplaces, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said. HSE chief executive Sarah Albon said every workplace should carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment before staff return, and that the “vast majority” will be able to implement social distancing and hygiene measures. But on 12 May she told parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee that employers who are unable to do so should “individually not open”. The HSE chief said that between 9 March 9 and 7 May, the HSE had received more 7,149 coronavirus-related calls and online queries from people concerned about their safety at work. She said while many of those concerns were dealt with “immediately”, about 1,400 were referred to the workplace safety regulator’s inspectors for further investigation. In 321 cases, inspectors spoke with employers, who were required to show what safety measures they had put in place, while 27 were written to, with orders for improvements to be made. HSE inspectors were yet to close any businesses as a result of those concerns, she added. Albon said a further surge in calls is expected as people begin to return to work this week, with HSE increasing its call centre staff and extending its opening hours from 5pm to 10pm to cope with demand. HSE has received 3,000 reports of coronavirus-related occupational diseases, 200 reports of dangerous occurrences and 71 worker deaths submitted through its RIDDOR reporting system, the committee heard. Asked why the figure for reported worker deaths was “so low”, Ms Albon said: “We think it is at least likely we have had some significant under-reporting, and that is particularly under NHS settings where we have had very, very low numbers so far reported to us.” When questioned whether it is safe for people to go back to work, Ms Albon said the ‘vast majority’ of firms should be capable of implementing safe working, “but if an individual employer concludes that particular issues around the way they work or their accommodation or their staff means they can’t, then they should individually not open.”
HSE at the Work and Pensions Committee and 12 May 2020 evidence session on Parliament TV live. Express and Star.
Prospect has warned that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) needs proper support if it is to enforce the government’s new guidelines on workplace safety and manage the transition back to work safely. The union representing HSE inspectors has raised concerns about the regulator’s levels of funding and staffing to effectively police the new regime. The prime minister declared that HSE would be doing ‘spot checks’ of workplaces to ensure compliance with the new rules. Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said: “The government has finally published its detailed guidance on how to get back to work safely but there is still a significant lack of clarity on how it will work. The prime minister also indicated that HSE will be carrying out spot checks on workplaces to ensure safety.” The Prospect leader continued: “To enable HSE to cope with this level of work he promised a £14m funding boost, but this is just 10 per cent of the real-terms funding cut the HSE has experienced over the past ten years and there are now fewer than 500 main grade inspectors in the UK. The new money will presumably be used to fund new inspectors but capacity is needed as soon as possible. How are the existing inspectors expected to do the required inspections, while also training new inspectors? And will these new inspectors be permanent positions?” He concluded: “All these are questions the government must answer urgently so that workers know they will be able to return to work safely and that their workplace will be adequately regulated.”
Prospect news release.
A top safety law academic has accused prime minister Boris Johnson of criminality and ‘social murder’ after he called for an early return to work. Steve Tombs, professor in social policy and criminality at the Open University, said “the government must know that construction workers are exposed to and unwitting carriers of coronavirus. In my view this is criminal negligence, it’s manslaughter, it’s social murder.” Professor Tombs was commenting in a Reel News online criticism of the government’s policy, featuring construction workers and their family members and construction, legal and safety experts. The video was produced by the grassroots Shut The Sites campaign, which is calling for the closure of all non-essential building sites and for all workers to be paid irrespective of whether they are employees, self-employed or agency workers. It says the same day the government urged all construction workers to return to work, Office of National Statistics figures showed “keeping sites open has led to three times as many deaths of construction workers as healthcare professionals. Hundreds more will die if this appalling policy is allowed to continue - so Shut The Sites are calling for collective organisation to stop the carnage.” It added: “Construction workers on site are being encouraged to join a union and take action collectively to protect themselves and their families, alongside demonstrations by members of local communities at sites near them.” It said all non-essential work should stop and any critical works must only continue “with the highest level of health and safety possible to protect workers.” This week the government said local planning authorities were now expected to support the extension of site operating hours to 9pm in residential areas. The ONS figures showed ‘Low-skilled workers in construction’ had a Covid-19 death rate of 25.9 per 100,000 males compared to the general working age population, five times the rate for ‘professionals’.
Reel News. Shut the Sites blog. Deaths in England and Wales related to Covid-19 by occupation, ONS, 11 May 2020.
The Guardian. Good Morning Britain. Construction Enquirer.
The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) has warned that entire areas of risk have not been addressed by government advice on a safe return to work. The guidance released this week by the health protection body emphasises the wider problems in return work, beyond the Covid-19 risks, noting: “The unprecedented shutdown of plants, workplaces and processes designed to be in continual operation will give rise to really serious challenges.” It cites the criminal failings at a plant in India, operated by the multinational LG Polymers, that last week led to a massive styrene leak during reopening that caused multiple deaths and widespread poisonings. “Many businesses had to shut down premises in a hurry and with no idea how long it would be before they started up again. That means that all of the processes that are there to keep people safe from harmful exposures to chemicals, biological agents and other hazards have not been in operation. A proper plan and risk assessment is needed before starting up processes and bringing people back to work,” said BOHS president Kelvin Williams. “Our members are experts in preventing harmful exposures. We wanted to provide usable and practical advice to help people properly assess the risks. This sort of advice needs to be written by people who actually understand real working environments.” On the 23 March, BOHS chief executive Kevin Bampton wrote to science minister Amanda Solloway, noting: “The unprecedented shutdown of plants, workplaces and processes designed to be in continual operation will give rise to really serious challenges.” The warning added: “Systems will be prone to biological infestation such as legionella, seals and protections will degrade, corrosions and instability will be a feature of chemical storage, carcinogenic dusts will accumulate. All of these things need to be planned for on an industry-specific basis so as to avoid a second wave of acute and chronic ill-health and a stuttering restart of the British economy because of health and safety concerns.”
BOHS news release and return to work guide.
Deaths of key workers and care home residents linked to coronavirus in Scotland are to be reported to prosecutors for investigation. Lord Advocate James Wolffe said the Crown Office was setting up a dedicated unit to examine Covid-19 deaths. He said the process would help determine if Fatal Accident Inquiries were to be held into the deaths. A Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) is normally held in Scotland if a death occurs in the workplace. Mr Wolffe said the inquiries would help make sure society could better understand the circumstances of these virus deaths and learn lessons from them. The Lord Advocate is the Scottish government's chief legal officer, and is responsible for the investigation of sudden, unexpected and unexplained deaths - with a view to preventing future deaths in similar circumstances. Mr Wolffe said there were two categories of Covid-19 deaths which could fall into this category - those where the deceased contracted the virus in a care home, and those where they contracted it through their work. He said this included, but was not limited to, “care home workers, frontline NHS staff, public transport employees and emergency services personnel.” These deaths will be registered with the investigation system at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), and Mr Wolffe said the “nature and extent of investigation will depend on the circumstances” of each death. He said relatives would be kept informed of the progress of inquiries, and that it would ultimately be down to the Crown whether FAIs were held.
STV News. The Herald. The Scotsman. BBC News Online.
A joint statement sent by the TUC to the government on behalf of unions with members in the education sector has outlined the measures needed for the safe reopening of schools. In the 8 May document, sent to the secretary of state for education ahead of the government’s announcement that there could be a phased reopening of schools from 1 June, the unions GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite set out key principles and tests for the reopening of schools in England to ensure the safety of children, parents, staff and the communities they serve. It calls for a national Covid-19 education taskforce with government, unions and education stakeholders to agree statutory guidance for safe reopening of schools. Specific demands include: Safety and welfare of pupils and staff as the paramount principle; no increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme; consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students and families facing economic disadvantage; additional resources for enhanced school cleaning, PPE and risk assessments; and local autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new Covid-19 cases. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Parents and staff need full confidence that schools will be safe before any pupils return. The government must work closely with unions to agree a plan that meets the tests we have set out. Those discussions must include unions representing all school workers, not just teachers.” She added: “The best way to do this is through a national taskforce for safe schools, with government, unions and education stakeholders. Schools must also get extra funds from government to pay for essential safety measures like PPE and additional cleaning.” A further 13 May statement signed by the unions AEP, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, NSEAD, Prospect, UNISON and Unite reiterated the message that school should only reopen “when it is safe to do so,” adding: “The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.”
TUC news release and full statement to the Education Secretary and follow up 13 May statement. Department for Education news release and related guidance. NASUWT news release and related news release. NEU news release. UNISON news release and related news release.
Morning Star. Evening Standard. The Independent. BBC News Online.
Almost all school support staff are worried reopening schools too early will put children and their families at risk, a GMB survey has found. According to the poll, which received more than 14,000 responses from workers in England including teaching assistants, caretakers and admin staff, an ‘overwhelming’ 96 per cent of respondents are worried about the health of children under current proposals. The survey also revealed that only 0.6 per cent of respondents think it is possible for young school children to socially distance in school. Less than 12 per cent of school support staff are confident adequate coronavirus testing will be available. GMB national officer Karen Leonard said: “Our members are desperate to see the pupils and return to doing the jobs they love, but only when it is safe to do so. Our survey responses demonstrate how terrified they are of the government’s careless approach to a wider reopening of schools.” She added: “It’s impossible for young children to socially distance and current plans would put lives at risk. Ministers are playing Russian roulette with the youngest pupils in schools leaving parents and staff feeling scared, confused and with no confidence in the process. Unless this changes, we are likely to see thousands of worried families boycott schools reopening.” The union officer concluded: “We urge the government to enter into immediate talks with the education unions to plan a clear strategy to protect communities, pupils and staff.” Professor Paul Hunter, a specialist epidemiologist in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia (UEA), warned this week that it was still “uncertain and debatable” whether it is safe to reopen schools. He said the lack of clear evidence about the safety of pupils returning to the classroom meant school reopening should only be done “very carefully.” He noted: “Our study shows that school closures in Europe had the greatest association with a subsequent reduction in the spread of the disease.”
GMB news release and related news release. UEA news release. Evening Standard.
Paul Hunter and others. ‘Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions against Covid-19 in Europe: a quasi-experimental study’, published on the preprint server MedRvix, 6 May 2020.
An NEU poll of 1,074 parents of school-age children in England has identified widespread concern about the reopening of school. The research was undertaken between 5 May and 7 May 2020, before the relaxation of lockdown measures and the government’s announcement that schools could start to reopen from 1 June. When asked if teachers should have to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when schools re-open, 59 per cent agreed. Parents also expressed a reluctance to send their children back to school as soon as they re-opened. Just under half (49 per cent) said they would, with a third of the total sample (33 per cent) intending to delay their return. These views were consistent across primary and secondary sectors. Commenting on the findings of the poll, NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “With an aspiration to open schools more widely in less than three weeks from now, the prime minister is squandering a great deal of parental goodwill.” She added: “Now that the prime minister has set himself on a course out of lockdown, he needs to act fast to reassure unions, school staff and parents that when schools do open it will only be when our shared and widespread concerns for personal safety are fully met.”
NEU news release and related news release.
Staff and student safety must be guaranteed before colleges can reopen, trade unions have said, setting out five tests that must be met by government and colleges. Unions representing staff working in further education colleges called for stringent hygiene measures, protection for vulnerable people and isolation for all suspected cases to avoid colleges becoming Covid-19 hotspots. The unions said that social distancing plans had to extend beyond the classroom to cover things like travelling to and from college and socialising. To help deal with those challenges, they said that staff and students who can work from home should continue to do so. The unions were responding to government guidance released on 12 May setting out how some students may return to face-to-face teaching in colleges from 1 June. Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said: “These five tests set out a clear roadmap to reopening at a time when the health and safety of all staff, students and others can be assured. Risk assessments are crucial to this and can be carried out effectively where Unite members remain central to the process, with appropriate adjustments being made, enforcement in place and provision of PPE where necessary to ensure the ongoing health of all involved.” UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The government needs to work us to address the national challenges, while individual colleges should work with their local union reps to address the unique challenges they will face.” GMB national officer Stuart Fegan said: “The public expects the government to put in place all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of students and workers in further education institutions. What the joint trade unions are calling for in these five key tests is reasonable, proportionate and wholly necessary.” NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Safety has to be the overriding concern. Planning for wider reopening should focus on ensuring safety is assured if and when the college reopens, not on meeting government deadlines which may well prove unrealistic.” UNISON national education officer Leigh Powell said: “Managers and unions must work together to make colleges safe places to work and study. Cutting corners by skimping on full risk assessments and rigorous cleaning regimes, or limiting provision of protective equipment, risk pushing us back to square one. Staff and students need to be know that everything that can be done to protect their health has been done.”
UCU news release. Unite news release. Department for Education guidance.
The GMB has written to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) calling on it to support members during the coronavirus pandemic. The union said while nurses continue to struggle to get access to the PPE they need, nurses and other healthcare workers are being threatened with disciplinary hearings if they speak out about the lack of protection. The union is calling on the NMC to issue a clear statement of support for any nurse who finds themselves unable to work safely due to a lack of appropriate PPE. Helen O’Connor, GMB organiser, said: “Our GMB nurse members are horrified they are being put under pressure to care for Covid-19 patients when they lack the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from this deadly virus. Too many nurses have died because NHS managers and the government have failed to put measures in place to adequately protect them.” She added that the GMB “is not prepared to accept a situation where our nurse members have to make a choice between working without PPE or face the sack from the job they love. We call on the NMC to issue a clear, unambiguous message of support to nurses - stating their registration will not be taken away if they find themselves in a situation where they cannot carry out a task due to lack of appropriate PPE.”
GMB news release.
The British Standards Institution (BSI) says that A4-sized face shields do not always protect healthcare workers' faces from exposure to Covid-19. Faced with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), many communities have started making their own to help frontline workers. These include using 3D-printing and laser-cut designs. Some incorporate A4-sized acetate transparent paper, designed for overhead projectors, to make the visor. “People are trying to use materials that are readily available,” said Nathan Shipley, PPE group certification manager at the BSI. “Using acetates from an overhead projector is a quick fix, but the width of the acetate screens isn't wide enough. Some people say, 'any PPE is better than no PPE', but if you are wearing something you think will protect you and it won't, you are in more danger.” BSI says visors should conform to the European standard EN166, which determines the size of the face area that needs protection - although some women find that standard issue kit doesn't fit them. The BSI said it has approved 21 face shield designs so far and has received around 70 from various groups, including businesses, academic institutions and individuals. The institution warned on 16 April that a number of manufacturers were selling potentially dangerous medical face masks - and other PPE for healthcare applications - on the back of false certificates.
BSI news release. BBC News Online.
The government must establish clear rules about maximum passenger capacity and make the wearing of face masks compulsory to keep buses and other forms of public transport safe during the pandemic, Unite has demanded. The union, which represents over 80,000 public transport workers, issued its warning following the 12 May publication of the government’s safer transport policy, which provides basic guidance for employers in protecting passengers and workers during the pandemic. Unite said it believes the guidance on risk assessments must be stricter, adding it must by detailed, dynamic, strictly adhered to, available to workers and regularly updated. Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said: “Unite is very concerned that the document lacks clarity with regards to the maximum capacity of passengers allowed on buses and trams. If the government is serious about ensuring that social distancing is maintained there must be strict rules on maximum capacity.” He added: “It is not good enough to recommend face coverings. They need to become mandatory on public transport. This will dramatically reduce the risk of Covid-19 being transmitted.” The Unite officer said: “The government must clearly direct bus operators on how to police maximum capacity rules, this must not be the responsibility of the driver. Far too many bus workers have died during this pandemic and it must be made clear to the public that drivers will not be expected to leave their cab, which should be totally sealed off from passengers.” Unite is also campaigning for the £60,000 life assurance coronavirus payment for health workers be paid to bus workers. A high number of bus workers especially, those working in London, have died of Covid-19. Transport secretary Grant Shapps told the Commons on 12 May that 42 Transport for London workers have now died of the infection.
Unite news release. Statement to parliament by the transport secretary, 12 May, and new transport guidance for passengers and operators.
Safe work and safe travel must go hand in hand to beat Covid-19, Unite has said, and the approach must deploy the skills of union safety reps. Commenting on this week’s government's guidance on safer working and the coronavirus crisis, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “We welcome the fact that the government has listened to the concerns of trade unions and reflected these concerns in this guidance. It is welcome too that this guidance is evolving and will adapt to reflect emerging concerns and challenges.” The union leader stress the union role in securing a safe return to work. "Importantly, this guidance signals to employers that they should work with trade union specialists to keep workplaces and workers safe. Union health and safety representatives are highly skilled and ready to assist the national effort to keep workers safe,” he said. “Again, I say to the government, there are tens of thousands of union safety specialists than can be enlisted to assist employers and the Health and Safety Executive in a concerted approach to eliminate the spread of the virus and fulfil the prime minister's call to make workplaces coronavirus secure. Safe workplaces and safe travel to work must go hand in hand in the strategy to beating this disease. Together, they are absolutely crucial to building wider public confidence that it is right and safe to re-awaken the economy, which we all want to happen in order to keep people at work and earning.” He said the government was “sending mixed signals”, however, with construction and manufacturing workers “expected to return to work using a transport system that cannot yet observe social distancing obligations.” He said: “Crucially, employers must not pressurise workers to imperil themselves and others by crowding on to buses, trains or Tubes. Unite will protect every member who decides that they cannot work because either their journey to their workplace or the workplace itself are not safe.”
Unite news release.
The crowds witnessed on packed on station platforms, commuter services, and the Tube in London, have borne out union warnings about the dangers of the government urging people back to work. Commenting on 13 March, Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union ASLEF, said: “Today was, sadly, a day every ASLEF member could see coming. Photos are emerging all over social media of Tube trains and commuter services packed with people unable to socially distance in line with government recommendations.” Criticising the prime minister, who on l0 May said those who couldn’t work from home were “actively encouraged to go back to work”, he said: “ASLEF desperately wants as many services to run as possible. But we will only increase services when it is safe to do so. Safe for passengers and safe for staff. But be under no false illusion. Our railway and Tube network are bursting at the seams during peak times at the best of times. They simply do not allow for social distancing with anywhere near the normal number of commuters. We do not have the capacity. We can only control demand.” The ASLEF leader added: “Please do not blame workers travelling on public transport. Do not blame transport workers and their unions. Blame those who leave workers with no other option than to take those journeys. And, if you can avoid public transport in any way, please do.” As the first lockdown relaxation was announced, the rail union RMT said Boris Johnson’s return to work message was “fraught with danger”. Mick Cash, the general secretary, said industrial action could be necessary to “protect workers and passengers”, adding that staff would be entitled to refuse to work if they did not feel safe. “If that’s what needs to be to keep people safe then we will stop trains,” he told Sky News. A new University of Sussex study calculated the sharp drop in travel was the main reason coronavirus was brought under control – and, therefore, more transport use carries a large risk of a second spike in infections.
ASLEF news release and earlier release. Sky News. The Guardian. The Telegraph. Evening Standard. BBC News Online.
Transport union RMT has warned that crowded train, Tube and bus services are “categorically less safe” and should not run unless two metre social distancing can be enforced. The union said unless the government took urgent action to enforce two metre social distancing, public transport would become a “turbo charged Covid-19 breeding ground” driving a new wave of infections. The union said its advice was in line with general government advice that two metre social distancing should be observed at all times and industry assurances that train services should run with 80 per cent fewer passengers compared to normal services. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “We have a contradictory and potentially lethal approach from government which says on the one hand when we go outside our homes into open spaces two metre social distancing must be maintained at all times but then on the other hand the government is not lifting a finger to prevent the cramming of passengers into confined spaces on bus, train and Tube services.” He added: “The union is saying categorically that public transport is less safe if passengers cannot practice two metre social distancing. The government must take action to enforce its own public health policies otherwise public transport will become a turbo charged Covid-19 breeding ground driving a second spike of infections.” Prof Maziar Nekovee, of the University of Sussex’s School of Engineering and Informatics, said this week its research showed the success of the lockdown had been achieved by a huge reduction in the “daily mobility of the UK population”, as demonstrated by figures for transport use.
RMT news release. University of Sussex news release. The Independent.
The government to intervene immediately to prevent overcrowding on London’s buses, Unite has said. The union, which represents over 20,000 bus workers, made its call following pictures and reports on 13 May of overcrowded buses in London on the day that workers were “actively encouraged” by the prime minister to return to work. Unite said it believes that the government must act to ensure safety. It is calling for clear rules to be provided on the maximum capacity of buses, and for the government to also provide a method of enforcing them rather than expecting the bus driver to take action. Unite is also advising its members that if overcrowding becomes so dangerous that it threatens their safety than they should stop work immediately and remove themselves from the danger. Unite regional officer for London buses John Murphy said: “Pictures of overcrowded buses are frightening and action must be taken immediately. The government is on the one hand telling people to go back to work but on the other failing to provide the means for them to get there safely.” The union said the use of facemasks by passengers should be mandatory and added: “Overcrowding can only be resolved by the government providing additional funding to run more buses during peak hours and introducing strict rules on policing the number of passengers on each bus… Policing overcrowding cannot and will not be the responsibility of the driver.” The union officer concluded: “During the pandemic at least 30 bus workers have lost their lives in London. Huge efforts have been made to protect the workforce and Unite will not allow that to be compromised. We have advised members of their right to withdraw from serious and imminent danger in line with the legal protections that exist, and that where they are forced to do so they will receive Unite’s full support.”
Unite news release. Evening Standard.
Amid concerns about physical distancing problems on transport arising after the prime minister urged the public to return to work, UNISON said it is paramount that key workers can travel safely to their jobs. The union is urging to public to avoid non-essential travel to head off a second spike in Covid-19 cases. Responding to the 12 May government guidance about using public transport during the coronavirus pandemic, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Many NHS, care, police, council and school staff don’t have cars and are reliant on public transport to get to work. Ensuring they can still travel safely is paramount. Other workers and employers should think hard about making non-essential journeys and avoid buses, Tubes and trains wherever possible to prevent a second wave of infection.” He added: “Any businesses still closed should open up their car parks for free to all key workers who are able to drive.”
UNISON news release. New DfT transport guidance for passengers.
A railway ticket office worker has died of Covid-19 after being spat at by a man who claimed he had the infection. Belly Mujinga, 47, who had underlying respiratory problems, was working at Victoria station in London on 22 March when she was assaulted, along with a female colleague. Within days of the incident, both women fell ill with the virus. British Transport Police (BTP) said an inquiry had since been launched to trace the man who spat at the pair. Mrs Mujinga was admitted to Barnet Hospital on 2 April and was put on a ventilator. But she died three days later, said her union, TSSA. Her employer, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), said it “took any allegations extremely seriously” and that it was “investigating all claims.” Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, said: “We are shocked and devastated at Belly’s death.” The union leader said the £60,000 compensation paid to the survivors of health and care workers who die as a result of the pandemic “should be extended to the families of all frontline workers who perish trying to keep our country and vital services going.” Commenting on the loss of Belly Mujinga, he said “there are serious questions about her death, it wasn’t inevitable. As a vulnerable person in the ‘at risk’ category and her condition known to her employer, there are questions about why GTR didn’t stand her down from frontline duties early on in this pandemic. The assault she suffered at work was scary and we do not think the company treated it seriously enough.” Cortes added: “Rather than talking about the easing the lockdown, the government must first ensure that the right precautions and protections have been taken so that more lives are not lost. Anyone who is vulnerable should remain at home and home working should be the default wherever possible. Our rail industry needs to have a very serious look at what tasks are deemed ‘essential’ and must put protections in place for all our members and our passengers.” The BTP said it was “conducting extensive enquiries” into the incident that led to Belly Mujinga’s death.
TSSA news release and news release on its demands on GTR. British Transport Police statement. BBC News Online. The Mirror.
Transport union TSSA has commended cross channel rail company Eurostar for confirming that all frontline staff will be given visors. The move comes after the news of Victoria Station ticket office worker Belly Mujinga’s death following an assault by a member of the public claiming to have the virus. TSSA has demanded that Belly Mujinga’s employer, Southern Rail, part of GTR, provides visors for all its frontline staff. As of 14 May, the company had “refused to move on the issue of visors as well as other safety concerns raised by staff unions,” TSSA said. TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “We welcome efforts by Eurostar to provide its frontline staff with protective visors. This is a responsible move to help protect our members who are on the frontline and come into contact with the general public for work. As a union, we are deeply disappointed that Belly Mujinga’s employer GTR hasn’t taken the same action. It is the most basic right for a worker to be safe in their workplace and it is incumbent and legal responsibility for employers to ensure their staff’s safety.” Cortes added: “We are loudly calling on GTR and all transport companies to provide protective equipment for staff and to make adjustments to protect workers, including standing down non-essential duties and vulnerable workers. We are also calling on the government to expand the compensation scheme for our NHS and our care staff who die from coronavirus to transport workers.” An eight point plan presented by TSSA to GTR on 14 May included: “Feedback and concerns from staff must be taken seriously and risk assessments must not be signed off until health and safety reps, having had sufficient time to share with colleagues, are satisfied measures have been put in place to mitigate against the risks as much as is reasonable.”
TSSA news release and news release on its demands on GTR.
The GMB has called for the closure and deep cleaning of a fashion retailer's warehouse after reports workers had tested positive for Covid-19. The union wrote this week to the co-founder of ASOS with concerns about its depot at Little Houghton, near Barnsley. The union claimed safety measures were “insufficient.” It said staff have long been concerned about a lack of social distancing and hygiene measures - branding the site a ‘cradle of disease’. GMB organiser Will Dalton accused the company of “putting profits before people.” He said: “ASOS has shirked its responsibility for social distancing - telling workers it’s down to them. This outbreak is the inevitable consequence. Loyal ASOS staff deserve better than this.” In his letter to Nick Robertson, he wrote: “The measures that you have put into place within the warehouse are insufficient and do not provide protection to workers. Additionally ASOS’s threats to take disciplinary action against workers who fail to comply with the social distancing rules make no allowance for where those rules cannot be physically adhered to inside the warehouse.” The letter called on the company to “temporarily close your warehouse at the very least to do a deep clean and take actual steps to make the workplace safe.” The online fashion retailer employs about 4,000 people at the depot. It said the warehouse "remains a safe place to work.” An ASOS spokesperson said: “Since these cases came to light, we have proactively contacted the local environmental health office to provide a detailed briefing on the situation.”
GMB news release. BBC News Online.
The steel trade unions and UK Steel have published new safe working guidance following the prime minister’s return to work message to manufacturers. Steel union Community said the extensive Code of Practice draws on the sector’s experience of operating over the past two months, going beyond the government guidelines, to specifically detail the steps that can be taken on steel sites in order to minimise the risk of transmission. Community general secretary Roy Rickhuss said: “This guidance sets the standard for safe working that we expect to see across the steel industry. It’s been achieved through extensive consultation between employers and unions. Through our health and safety reps, the unions will ensure that this guidance is implemented and upheld so that people working in steel remain safe as the industry increases production.” He added: “The steel sector is leading the way in benchmarking safe working practices as the wider economy begins to restart. We will be pushing for other employers to follow this lead.” UK Steel and the steel unions have agreed to update the safe working guidance as and when new government guidance is published.
Community news release and joint Code of Practice.
Waste contractors in the south west of England need to speed up the introduction of stringent health and safety measures for workers at sites dealing with coronavirus contaminated waste, Unite has warned. The union, which has 900 members at various sites across the region, has serious concerns that its members could be handling Covid-19 waste from contaminated collections, such as care homes, without adequate protective protection equipment (PPE).The majority of sites are operated by outsourced contractors, although a number are council-run. Unite is calling for employers to adopt best practice, but if they fail to put workers’ safety first, the union said it will ask local councils to intervene urgently so that the highest standards are met. Unite regional officer Ken Fish said: “We have grave concerns for workers’ safety within the waste sector. Our members across the south west region are exposed to risk from the start of their working day. These workers collect waste from our doorsteps, care homes and commercial business, but we think they may be paying a hidden – and potentially deadly - price.” He added: “Workers are sharing too many stories of not being able to maintain social distancing, travelling with excessive operatives in the collection vehicles with no additional PPE, not having access to toilets and hand washing facilities and no reasonable working standards in place for taking their breaks. Workers are having to collect contaminated waste from care homes that have positive tests, without adequate PPE and, on most occasions, they may not even be aware of the significant additional risk.” He concluded: “Inadequate safety measures are completely unacceptable and we urge employers to engage proactively with our experienced health and safety reps when risk assessments are being produced.”
Unite news release.
Workers’ concerns about their mental health have increased dramatically since the lockdown began, a Unite survey has found. As a result the union is calling on employers to take a proactive approach to dealing with employees’ mental health challenges immediately, as workers return to the workforce and begin to adjust to revised working conditions. Unite surveyed 22,000 workplace activists and just under two-thirds (65 per cent) of respondents recorded that they had to deal with an increase in members’ mental health concerns. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “Unite members operate across many sectors. Many are key and frontline workers whose mental health may well have been affected when dealing with the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. For workers who have been furloughed or working from home, problems of isolation, loneliness, concerns about debt and fears about returning to the workplace are all issues that affect workers’ mental health.” She added: “It is imperative that employers undertake risk assessments on workers’ mental health and implement the required actions to protect workers. We urge them to do this while actively encouraging and assisting workers to raise mental health concerns and then ensure they receive the help they need. It is also crucial that employers understand that mental health issues will not disappear overnight and that additional awareness and assistance remains in place for the foreseeable future.” The survey also found that while the majority of respondents (65 per cent) reported that employers have behaved responsibly, nearly one in five (18 per cent) reported that their employer had acted recklessly, for example in failing to supply PPE.
Unite news release.
Welding specialist Renown Consultants Limited has been fined £450,000 and ordered to pay £300,000 costs for failing to ensure that two of its workers were sufficiently rested to work and travel safely. The sentence was passed virtually this week by His Honour Judge Godsmark sitting at Nottingham Crown Court after Renown were found guilty on 19 March 2020 in a prosecution by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). The sentencing brings to an end a case in which Zac Payne, 20, and Michael Morris, 48, died on 19 June 2013 while travelling in a company van back to Doncaster after a night shift in Stevenage. In the early hours of the morning on the A1 near Claypole their van crashed into a parked articulated lorry. Ian Prosser, HM Chief Inspector of Railways, said: “We welcome the sentence which is the first time that ORR has prosecuted in relation to failures of fatigue management. It shows the seriousness with which the court has taken this tragic case, and shows the fatal consequences that can occur when fatigue policies are disregarded.” ORR’s investigation found failures to manage fatigue among the workforce. His Honour Judge Godsmark said Renown’s failure to perform a suitable and sufficient risk assessment on the day before the fatalities led to the company failing to comply with its own fatigue management procedures. It also failed to comply with the working time limits for safety critical work, such as welding and trackside work, which insist there should be a “minimum rest period of 12 hours between booking off from a turn of duty to booking on for the next.” He said there were “serious and systematic failure by Renown”, adding: “Senior operations cut corners and I found blindness at Doncaster in relation to people driving to and from jobs.”
ORR news release. Construction Enquirer. BBC News Online.
The TUC has said union reps can now keep their essential skills up to date more flexibly, with all its core courses fully online for the first time. “With 24/7 access, now you can learn at your own pace, whenever and wherever's convenient for you - these courses work equally well on your smartphone, tablet or desktop computer,” the TUC announced.
Find out more about TUC’s online courses and health, safety and wellbeing courses, including Health and safety reps one.
Many of us are working from home to reduce the spread of Covid-19. But the TUC says this exposes workers to other health and safety hazards, and many employers are ignoring their responsibility by not carrying out risk assessments. Union reps can help change this with the help of the TUC’s new guide to risk assessments for homeworkers. The guide gives guidance on workers’ rights and employers’ duties to address risks including accidents, injuries, mental health problems and violence.
TUC guide to risk assessments for homeworkers.
The workplace safety regulator in Oregon, USA, has issued a citation to National Frozen Foods, accusing the company in Albany of “failing to implement physical distancing measures to protect workers from the spread of the coronavirus.” The citation carries a penalty of $2,000. Oregon OSHA said the citation “stems from an inspection launched April 20 in response to multiple complaints about the facility, which produces frozen fruits and vegetables.” The plant made headlines later in the week after employees there tested positive for Covid-19. Some family members have also tested positive. “We expect employers to follow the appropriate requirements to protect workers against the spread of this disease,” said Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA. “Continuing to do business as usual at the expense of worker safety is not acceptable.” According to Oregon OSHA: “Under a state executive order aimed at slowing the Covid-19 pandemic, employers are required to maintain physical distancing policies to keep workers at least six feet apart. The practice at National Frozen Foods ran counter to those requirements, according to Oregon OSHA’s inspection, which included interviews of employees. The company allowed 18 employees – stationed at frozen packaging lines nine at a time during day and swing shifts – to work at a distance of two feet to four feet from each other.” The company had allowed this practice to continue after multiple employees who worked on the packaging lines tested positive for Covid-19. In the US, three meat factory inspectors have also died of Covid-19.
Oregon OSHA news release. NBC 16 News. CBS News.
A European Commission decision not to put Covid-19 in the highest risk category of the Biological Agents Directive has been criticised by unions. The unions had earlier argued the virus, for which there is no vaccine, should be classified in the top risk group (Risks 946). Commenting on the 14 May decision, ETUC deputy general secretary Per Hilmersson said the union body welcomed the inclusion of Covid-19 under the Biological Agents Directive “but we regret that the decision today, if confirmed by the Commission, would mean that it will be classified as an agent belonging only in the second highest risk group. Research shows that the characteristics of the virus justify its classification in the highest risk group, not only because of the lack of effective treatment or vaccine, but because of the high risk of workers who are in contact with the public spreading the virus to the community.” He added: “A classification of Covid-19 in the highest risk group would give a stronger protection for workers in hospitals and elderly care homes, and all workers in contact with the public. It would improve occupational health but also strengthen the possibility of reducing the spread of the virus, and thereby the mortality, among the general population. However, as soon as there is effective treatment or vaccine available, the risk group classification should change.” He said the decision “does not hinder member states to implement stricter measures. The ETUC therefore calls on member states to classify the Covid-19 virus in the highest risk group.”
ETUC news release and note on Biological Agents Directive.
Video evidence and media reports detailing gross abuses aboard a Chinese fishing vessel operating with migrant seafarers have again shone a spotlight on the violence and human trafficking proliferating in the global fishing industry. On 24 April, two Chinese-owned vessels entered Korean waters and 26 Indonesia seafarers were disembarked after spending more than a year at sea without interruption. According to information they provided, they had signed on for a monthly salary of US$300. Instead, they were paid less than a dollar a day after deductions for recruitment and security and their passports were confiscated. The Indonesian seafarers were made to work up to 18 hours a day, denied rest and denied fresh drinking water, instead being given filtered sea water. In December, workers started to fall ill. Three died in transit after being transferred to two other vessels owned by the same company; a fourth died while in quarantine at a hotel in Busan with other crew members. He had been seriously ill, but neither the ship captain nor the Korean company that arranged the quarantine sought medical help. In light of the revelations, global food union IUF has called “for coordinated international action to stamp out the trafficking in human labour which fuels barbaric exploitation in the world's fisheries.”
IUF news release.
A deadly gas leak at a chemical plant in India last week is a grim wakeup call for the industry to recognise and meet its responsibility to respect human rights, a UN expert has said. Baskut Tuncak, the UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, was commenting on a 7 May chemical plant leak in India in which 12 people died and more than 1,000 fell ill. Styrene, a substance used to make plastics that is linked to cancer, neurologic damage and reproductive harm, leaked from the LG Polymers factory near the city of Visakhapatnam, in southern state of Andhra Pradesh, as the company rushed to restart production after the lockdown. The factory is operated by South Korean multinational LG Chem. Noting that that tragedy “illustrates the range of human rights infringements brought by our rampant consumption and production of plastics,” Tuncak said he welcomed the opening of an investigation, including possible charges of homicide. “I urge Indian and South Korean authorities, and the businesses implicated, to avoid the same mistakes and abuse of judicial procedures that have denied justice to the victims of the Bhopal disaster, who are still suffering to this day.” The chemical industry’s ‘Responsible Care’ initiative was adopted in 1986 after the Bhopal disaster in an effort to prevent further abuses of human rights by chemical manufacturers. “Yet this industry initiative’s principles contain no mention of human rights and fail to require that industry respects human rights in practice as required under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” the special rapporteur said.
OHCHR news release. ANROEV statement. Hindustan Times. New York Times.
United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
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