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Risks is the TUC's weekly newsletter for safety reps and others, sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors.

Risks: Union health and safety news - number 983 - 3 February 2021

In this issue: 
UNION COVID-19 ACTION AND RESOURCES OTHER NEWS RESOURCES INTERNATIONAL NEWS  
 

UNION COVID-19 ACTION AND RESOURCES

‘Dire consequences’ if workers aren’t protected better

Workplace exposure control experts have warned of ‘dire consequences’ if better protection of workers from Covid-19 is not put in place. The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), which is the chartered body for workplace exposure professionals, was speaking out after latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures on Covid-19 deaths revealed ‘alarming trends’ (Risks 982). BOHS president Kelvin Williams said: “People are dying unnecessarily, because there is still insufficient understanding of occupational hygiene measures that can prevent the spread of this disease.” BOHS said the figures prove that more focus needs to be placed on getting the right workplace protections into the right sectors, including effective respirators for all key health and public-facing workers and more attention to other protection, including proper ventilation, enforced social distancing and hand hygiene in the workplace. BOHS said it has “consistently campaigned since March 2020 to ensure that the NHS provides all its frontline workers with properly fitted filtering respirators within the context of properly thought out and managed occupational hygiene precautions, including ventilation.” The BOHS call for the more effective respirators – as opposed to the far less protective surgical or medical masks - to protect workers from Covid-19 has also been a repeated demand of unions (Risks 980) and occupational medicine experts. They are concerned the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) continues to ignore the findings of its own research. A 23 January 2021 paper co-authored by Manchester University’s Professor Raymond Agius observed: “It is not clear why the HSE is still not recommending respirators as PPE for public transport workers and other public-facing occupations, as well as in health and social care in situations where control at source, barriers, and ventilation are not adequate” (Risks 982). In an April 2020 Occupational Medicine paper, Prof Agius cited a 2008 HSE study that concluded: “Live viruses could be detected in the air behind all surgical masks tested. By contrast, properly fitted respirators could provide at least a 100-fold reduction.”
BOHS news release and report, BOHS – COVID-19: Occupation Risk Rating and Control Options According to Exposure Rank. CNN News.
Raymond M Agius. Covid-19 and Health at Work. Occupational Medicine, volume 70, number 5, pages 349-351, April 2020.
Raymond M Agius, Denise Kendrick, Herb F Sewell, Marcia Stewart, John FR Robertson. Reaffirming health and safety precautionary principles for COVID-19 in the UK, The Lancet, volume 397, issue 10271, page 274, 23 January 2021.
Health and Safety Executive. Evaluating the protection afforded by surgical masks against influenza bioaerosols: Gross protection of surgical masks compared to filtering facepiece respirators, Research Report RR619, 2008.
 

Offices are prime sites for Covid outbreaks

More than 60 suspected Covid outbreaks in offices were recorded in the first two weeks of the current lockdown in England, a BBC investigation has found. Under England's lockdown rules, in force since 6 January, people should work from home if they can. Public Health England (PHE) figures, obtained via a Freedom of Information request, suggests offices have had more outbreaks compared to other workplaces. The data from PHE, obtained by the 5 Live Investigations team, lists the different types of workplaces where there have been clusters of cases, and reveals offices top the list. The data showed there were more than 500 outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks, in offices in the second half of 2020 - more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined. This has prompted calls for curbs on employers bringing non-essential staff into offices as well as demands from unions for tougher safety rules (Risks 982). The rules for England's lockdown state that “you may only leave your home for work if you cannot reasonably work from home”, with only essential workers in critical sectors allowed to travel into work. However, the Health and Safety Executive received nearly 4,000 Covid-related complaints about workplaces in January.  Professor Phil Taylor, who has spent years researching employment standards in call centres and office work, says offices provide the perfect environment for Covid to spread. “They have high occupational densities with little social distancing and are often sealed, with air con just recirculating pathogens like Covid," said Prof Taylor, from the University of Strathclyde. “Hot-desking is commonplace and cleansing is hit and miss. It's a toxic combination.” TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: “Everyone has the right to be safe at work. But Boris Johnson and his ministers have failed to get a grip on Covid safety in workplaces.” Labour shadow employment secretary Andy McDonald said: “Weak and outdated workplace safety rules and a lack of enforcement are putting workers and the general public at risk.”
Labour Party news release. BBC News Online. Morning Star.
 

Covid safety concerns cause court dispute

PCS has said it is now in dispute with the Crown Prosecution Service following the its failure to heed the civil service union’s calls to stop staff attending courts and tribunals until there are ‘suitable and sufficient’ safety measures. “We made this call as a result of growing concern for the health, safety and welfare of our members deployed to court [Risks 982]. Transmission of Covid-19 across the HMCTS [HM Courts and Tribunals Service] estate continues to rise at an alarming rate and the failure of HMCTS to implement suitable and sufficient safety measures means that we can no longer support the requirement for physical court attendance on safety grounds,” a union statement said. The statement continued: “Our repeated concerns that the vast feedback from members evidences that courts are not safe and that health and safety issues remain unresolved have not yet been satisfactorily answered.” The union concluded: “PCS has issued a formal notice of trade dispute to the employer advising that we can no longer support the approach adopted. We have, from the outset, identified solutions including maximising remote arrangements as directed by the Lord Chief Justice. While we remain committed to continuing to work with the employer to reach a resolution we have made it clear that the failure to reach an agreeable solution will result in the escalation of our dispute.”
PCS news release.
 

Quarantine hotels must be Covid-secure

Government’s plans to introduce quarantine hotels must not risk the health of the workers in these facilities, Unite has said. The union issued its warning after Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures released last week revealed that several groups of hospitality workers have been at a greatly elevated risk of dying from Covid-19. The average death rate in working age people is 24 deaths per 100,000, but chefs are at 103 and restaurant workers at 119 deaths per 100,000. Unite said it believes that the high toll of hospitality deaths is a result of a ‘toxic combination’ of insufficient sick pay, unscrupulous employment practices, a failure to maintain social distancing and a lack of PPE. The union is encouraging its members to report and challenge breaches of health and safety. It has launched a Make My Workplace Safe website which allows workers to report health and safety breaches and organise around their concerns. Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: “As a minimum requirement, to acknowledge the risks involved, the government should ensure that any hotels selected for this work, undertake to pay workers in full if they are required to self-isolate or develop Covid-19.” Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson added: “Every quarantine hotel must be entirely Covid-secure, a requirement which ensures that the guests and all the hotel staff are able to socially distance at all times and that other Covid measures are also rigorously applied.” He said the union’s Make My Workplace Safe website “is a crucial tool where workers are able to record health and safety breaches and allows them to take collective action to improve workplace safety.”
Unite news release and Make My Workplace Safe website.
 

Use school closures to make them safer

The government must not squander the time between now and early March to improve the safety of schools for pupils and staff, UNISON has said. The union for school support staff said everyone wants schools to reopen fully as soon as possible, but this must be done safely. The UK government’s announcement that schools will remain closed until 8 March buys valuable time for ministers to work with unions to make sure that when schools do finally open to all children, they stay open, said UNISON. Offering the vaccine to all school employees as well as a regular system of mass testing of staff and pupils are key to getting schools back to normal, UNISON said. The education staff vaccination call is backed by Labour. UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “Everyone wants to see schools fully reopen, but not at the cost of people’s health. The government must work with the people on the education frontline – teachers, teaching assistants, caretakers, caterers and all school staff – to ensure safety isn’t sacrificed and the damaging cycle of opening only to close days later is broken.”
UNISON news release. Labour Party news release. Morning Star.
 

Virus levels must fall before Scots schools reopen

Virus levels in the community must fall substantially before a return to schooling is confirming in Scotland, teaching union EIS has said. The union was commenting after first minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland's youngest pupils are likely to return to the classroom full time from 22 February, as schools start a phased reopening. The move will include all pupils in years P1-P3 (reception to year 2) as well as pre-school children. There will also be a part-time return, but on a very limited basis, for senior secondary pupils to allow them to complete work for national qualifications. A final decision will be taken on the partial reopening in a fortnight. The plan also includes a rollout of regular testing for staff and older students. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan commented: “Clearly, any school return remains contingent upon continued progress on community suppression of the virus and that is not a given so we need to see infection levels coming down substantially before the return date can be confirmed.” He added: “The EIS believes that a blended learning model, ie. implementing physical distancing, would be a safer strategy to deploy and we would need to see strong scientific evidence to justify the government’s approach. Frankly, in the absence of such evidence this model creates unnecessary risk for staff and pupils.” The union welcomed the new testing plan for staff and older pupils.
EIS news release. BBC News Online.
 

On yer bikes push for site workers is ‘dangerous’

Forcing construction workers in London on to bikes in a bid to ease pressure on public transport is dangerous, Unite has warned. The construction union was commenting after the publication of a new Transport for London (TfL) advice notice aimed at the major construction contractors. Unite said it is ‘very concerned’ about a clause recommending: “Allocating those shifts starting and finishing around busy travel times (06:00 to 08:00 and 16:00 to 17:30) to workers who can walk or cycle to and from work.” The union said encouraging construction workers to cycle to work is potentially dangerous. Many workers will have round trips of over 15 miles into central London, the union noted. It said expecting workers to cycle long distances during the winter, in the dark and in bad weather is a recipe for serious accidents. It said workers would be required to cycle home in the dark, often after undertaking a physically demanding 10-plus hour shift, when fatigue will be a major factor. Unite national officer for construction Jerry Swain said: “The advice issued by TfL is welcome as it recognises that only major contractors can introduce measures to allow for the staggering of shifts.” But he added: “Unite remains highly concerned that there is an attempt to force workers onto bikes and expect them to cycle long distances in the dark and in winter weather, undertake a long shift and return home again. This is a recipe for tragedy and should not be encouraged.” He said: “Workers will not avoid congested trains unless they know that if they are late they will not be penalised or victimised, which currently occurs all too frequently on sites.”
Unite news release. Construction Enquirer.
 

Covid pressures on NHS staff bad for mental health

Health staff are suffering severe mental health problems such as panic attacks and sleepless nights because of the pandemic, according to a UNISON survey. The findings reveal almost half (48 per cent) of health employees including nurses, porters, paramedics, healthcare assistants and A&E staff across the UK have struggled to cope. The union says free 24-hour helplines are urgently needed to support those experiencing burnout, especially as hospital admissions continue to soar. The report, ‘Worry in Mind’, is based on responses from more than 14,000 employees in hospitals, GP practices and other locations such as community clinics. Some have experienced suicidal thoughts, suffered PTSD symptoms and panic attacks, felt helpless when supporting patients – or quit their jobs altogether. Others say their mental health has been affected by having to leave rented accommodation because landlords are worried about Covid, or fears they will infect their families. The results show half (51 per cent) have sought mental health support, with the majority of these turning to friends and family (77 per cent) and colleagues (58 per cent). A significant number have used wellbeing apps (27 per cent) or professional counselling services (20 per cent). Fear of getting sick (60 per cent) with Covid was the top reason given for a deterioration in their state of mind, followed by being unable to see friends and family (55 per cent), and increased workload (49 per cent). UNISON head of health Sara Gorton commented: “The pressure on staff of keeping us safe during Covid has been relentless. Many are exhausted with no let-up in sight given the increase in hospital admissions and backlog of cancelled treatments. Others are traumatised from seeing patients die before their time – no-one can comprehend the toll this has taken.” She added: “The government needs to step in to help the NHS hold on to people. That means supporting their mental health as well as their financial wellbeing. To help avoid an exodus, ministers should extend psychological support and guarantee a decent pay increase.”
UNISON news release and report, Worry in Mind.
 

Bus worker survey exposes ‘wild west approach’

Days after Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed that male bus workers are at an increased risk of dying from Covid-19, a new RMT survey of bus workers has revealed a “wild west approach” to enforcing Covid-19 safety regulations and measures in the bus industry. The survey, answered by 891 bus workers, found a ‘shocking’ lack of enforcement of Covid-19 safety measures across the industry, which the union said is putting bus workers at risk. RMT’s survey found 80 per cent of bus workers think enforcement of face coverings on bus services is inadequate and 70 per cent of bus workers think enforcement of social distancing on bus services is inadequate. Almost two-third (60 per cent) of bus workers told the union their employer had taken no additional steps to protect staff safety since the emergence of the more infectious strain of Covid-19. RMT said its survey found that the lack of an industry-wide approach to Covid-19 in the bus industry has created a significant disparity in measures being adopted by bus operators to protect workers from coming into contact with Covid-19 at work. Nearly 7 in 10 bus workers believe their employer has put business priorities before safety during the pandemic. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The latest Covid-19 death figures, released just days ago, show that bus workers have much higher rates of death from Covid-19 than the population as a whole and this survey demonstrates that a wild west approach to enforcement in the bus industry is resulting in avoidable Covid deaths and illness amongst these brave key workers.” He added: “RMT’s survey findings should be a wake-up call for bus operators and government to now agree to our repeated demands for national action through a national bus industry coronavirus forum so that robust measures are put in place to protect the safety of bus workers and passengers. RMT will be seeking an urgent meeting with the bus minister, Baroness Vere, to discuss these concerns and we are also repeating our call for the government to prioritise transport workers for the vaccine.”
RMT news release.
 

Sort work transport risks before easing lockdown

Ministers must hold a forum with transport operators and unions before any lockdown restrictions are eased to ensure the safety of workers, Labour has said, after latest figures revealed high numbers of Covid deaths in the sector. Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon has written to Grant Shapps asking for a virtual roundtable after Office for National Statistics (ONS) data revealed taxi drivers (101 deaths per 100,000 males) and bus and coach drivers (83 deaths per 100,000 males) had recorded some of the highest death rates of any occupation. The shadow minister’s letter calls for clarity from the UK government around the guidance given to transport operators. It reads: “There is a mix of overlapping, and at times contradictory, scientific advice and guidance in circulation for essential workers. The job of government should surely be to cut through that noise and give those that need it clear, unified and constant guidance and direction. The fact that different operators have diverging views on the best approach is confusing matters further.” He added: “It’s clear that ahead of our frontline workers receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, we need a national operator’s forum with government, transport operators and unions with driver and other workers’ representatives. This would help in understanding the frontline issues, varying approaches, and practical solutions to getting the Covid case rate and death rate down.”
Labour Party news release. RMT news release.
 

Bradford bus strikes off after concerns addressed

Strike action at First West Yorkshire buses in Bradford has been called off after drivers struck an agreement with the company to resolve scheduling issues, Unite has said. The union said the agreement had been reached ‘amicably’. In December, nearly 300 drivers voted in favour of strike action against the company’s decision not to restore regular schedules upon returning to full service (Risks 978). The union said the revised Covid schedules were causing fatigue and stress for drivers, which was a danger to both themselves and the public. Under the new agreement, First West Yorkshire will make adjustments to running times to reflect the return of near-normal amounts of traffic and will reduce excessive duty lengths. Unite regional officer Darren Rushworth said: “We are pleased that this dispute has been resolved amicably and without the need for industrial action, thanks to the hard work of our members, dispute committee and First West Yorkshire.” He added: “All parties were keen to avoid any further disruption to the public, who have already had to deal with so much because of the pandemic. Being able to utilise a workforce’s collective strength to satisfactorily resolve issues such as this is exactly why workers should join Unite.”
Unite news release.
 

Post office bosses get the message

Postal union CWU has reached a new agreement that will revise post office opening hours in order to reduce the risk of Covid-19 exposure. The union says the new arrangements for Crown post offices recognise the ‘fantastic efforts’ of the whole workforce. CWU assistant secretary Andy Furey said: “When the situation began to worsen again in the latter part of last year, we pressed the business to re-open the issue and have been in discussions with them to return to limited opening hours.” He said the arrangements struck last week was “a data-led decision based upon weekly and hourly customer footfall and crucially takes account of feedback received.” He added: “Our members’ safety is paramount and we’re urging them to contact managers and union safety reps and highlight anything that may put colleagues at risk.” CWU postal executive member Lynn Simpson, who played a major role in the negotiations, said the agreement “is an important step in continuing to make sure that our frontline members can keep serving the public safely and lessen the risk to their health.”
CWU news release.
 

Covid-19 concerns after cases at army college

UNISON members based at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate have expressed their fears of contracting Covid-19 on the site. Concerns were first raised by the Compass employees on 7 January, when 11 of the 800 young soldiers returned from leave subsequently testing positive for coronavirus. On 14 January another 600 returned to the camp, of whom 53 tested positive a week later. A number of platoons were placed in isolation. UNISON said it understands that there are now 100 confirmed cases. There are 23 UNISON members working for Compass at the college, in a variety of roles – catering, cleaning, admin, running the shop and looking after the electronic shooting range. UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea has written to defence secretary Ben Wallace, who has ultimate responsibility for the safety of workers at the college. “These outbreaks are of clear concern to the safety of our members employed to work at this site,” she noted. The union said that under the management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has a duty to assess the risks of any work carried out on its premises, and how it will affect employees and contracted staff. The UNISON general secretary’s letter to the minister noted: “As a government agency, directly under control of the secretary of state, this site has a moral, as well as legal duty to set, and be seen to set, the highest standards in Covid safety. Failure to do so puts lives at risk and reflects badly on the site in question and also the government.” Wendy Nichols, branch secretary of North Yorkshire UNISON, said the union “cannot understand why the MoD thought that moving so many young people across the country was appropriate – especially without any testing before they left their home areas. The college and the MoD must protect the young soldiers, our members and the local community.”
UNISON news release.
 

Outrage at treatment of Novus prison educators

Prison educators are being but at risk of Covid-19 by a private provider, the union UCU has warned. The union has written to the Ministry of Justice to raise ongoing concerns about the treatment of prison education staff working for Novus, England and Wales' biggest prison education provider. In a letter to justice secretary Robert Buckland, the union outlined how Novus is refusing to properly engage with UCU, while managers are insisting many staff take part in in-person activities, despite the current lockdown and widespread staff concerns about health and safety. The letter, which calls on the government to encourage prison management to urgently re-engage with UCU representatives, comes after staff delivered a damning no confidence vote in John Thornhill, the CEO of Novus' parent group, LTE. Staff have reported intimidation, unlawful recording of union meetings, and unsubstantiated allegations against UCU reps. UCU general secretary Jo Grady, said: “We hope the government will take note of the current problems within Novus and ask why management are refusing to engage properly with UCU. It is incredibly frustrating that Mr Thornhill continues to refuse to meet with our chosen representatives to discuss how to deliver prison education safely. Staff health may be being put at risk. Mr Thornhill now needs to consider his position, and LTE's board must urgently address staff concerns.”
UCU news release.
 

Portsmouth council challenged over Covid repairs risk

Portsmouth council has been accused of needlessly exposing its council housing tenants and outsourced repair workers to potential exposure to Covid-19. Unite said it has become increasingly alarmed that workers at Comserve, Portsmouth council’s outsourced building maintenance division, are being forced to continue to undertake routine maintenance work in homes. The firm is responsible for maintaining the local authorities housing stock. Unite says the continuation of routine maintenance work in occupied properties puts tenants, workers and their families at increased risk of being exposed to, contracting and transmitting Covid-19. It says Portsmouth council could simply instruct Comserve not to undertake routine maintenance work, but it has chosen not to do so. Unite regional officer Richard White said: “Portsmouth council and Comserve are recklessly putting the health of tenants, workers and their families at risk by forcing them to undertake routine maintenance work during the lockdown. Our members are entirely prepared to undertake emergency work and continue working on void properties, but insisting they work in people’s homes, when that work does not have to be undertaken is both foolhardy and dangerous.” He added: “Portsmouth council is guilty of applying double standards, it has strict rules for its directly employed staff who must not enter people’s homes while at the same time insisting outsourced workers do exactly that. The council and its councillors need to come to their senses and place an immediate ban on routine maintenance work, until it is safe to do so.”
Unite news release.
 

OTHER NEWS

Relief as new u-turn sees rights review dropped

UK government u-turns that saw ministers deny then admit they was considering downgrading workers’ rights have now seen the plans dropped. The latest reverse comes in the wake of a 25 January joint statement, where 12 unions warned they would fight Boris Johnson “tooth and nail” to stop any watering down of workers’ rights (Risks 982). The working time regulations, a health and safety law, were top of the now abandoned regulatory hit list. Welcoming the decision to ditch the review, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Parents and the low paid will breathe a sigh of relief that the Tories are not yet coming for their rights. The epidemic of low pay and insecure work in this country are the real problems, not the basic rights of working people.” He said business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng “now has to put his money where his mouth is; if he wants to improve the lot of UK workers, then pick up the phone. We've got a list of desperately needed workers’ rights ready to go. He could start by outlawing the appalling fire and rehire practice that is laying waste to workers’ wages across the country, and fix sick pay so that being unwell and unable to work is not a sure path to poverty.” A union law expert from Thompsons Solicitors, struck a cautionary note. Richard Arthur, head of trade union law at the firm, commented: “While we are pleased to see that the sustained pressure of the trade union movement has forced the government to backtrack on its review of workers’ rights for the time being, the business secretary’s carefully crafted response is not to be believed for a moment.”
Unite news release. Community news release. Thompsons Solicitors news release. The Guardian. Morning Star. Personnel Today.
 

Shrewsbury pickets appeal for justice

The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign, which is seeking justice for North Wales building workers prosecuted for picketing during the 1972 national building workers’ strike over safety and working conditions, is to go to the Court of Appeal. The campaign is seeking justice for 24 trade unionists arrested and charged after the strike. The court will be asked this week to overturn their convictions. Six, including the actor Ricky Tomlinson who was a site worker at the time, received prison sentences and 16 received suspended prison sentences. They have always maintained their innocence. The appeal has come about after the campaign was able to persuade the Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer the cases to the Court of Appeal. In 1973, Ricky Tomlinson was sentenced to prison for unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate, and affray. He said: “People will be shocked to know the lengths the establishment went to in order to punish the working class for trying to improve their working and health and safety conditions.” He added: “The building sites were, at the time, known as the Killing Fields.” Terry Renshaw, speaking on behalf of the pickets, said: “We are looking forward to finally having our day in court to show that we were victims of a miscarriage of justice. Without the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign we would not be where we are today. We owe a great debt of thanks to them for the tireless work that they have carried out.”
PCS news release. BFAWU news release. TSSA news release. Public Interest Law Centre news release. Morning Star. Shropshire Star.
The Shrewsbury 24 campaign.
 

Sawmill worker fatally injured by conveyor collapse

A sawmill company has been fined after a worker was fatally injured when a lift conveyor collapsed on top of him. Hereford Crown Court heard how on 20 December 2017, two employees were working below a lift conveyor at Pontrilas sawmill in Hereford to remove wood debris. The machine had been experiencing a fault, which had prevented the conveyor from descending. While the employees were working the conveyor suddenly dropped downwards causing fatal crush injuries to Roman Kokot, 32, and bruising and abrasion injuries to the head of the other employee. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), found that the company had failed to assess the risks to the employees during the cleaning operation or provide a suitable system of work for removing debris from beneath the raised lift conveyor.  Pontrilas Sawmills Limited of Pontrilas, Hereford, pleaded guilty to a criminal health and safety offence. The company was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay costs of £22,016. HSE inspector Lee Schilling commented: “Unplanned maintenance activities give rise to the risk of fatal incidents. Simply securing the lift conveyor in a raised position to prevent the inadvertent downward movement or collapse would have prevented this incident.”
HSE news release. Free Press.
 

RESOURCES

TUC policy proposal for ‘sick pay that works’

A new TUC policy proposal spells out how to deliver ‘Sick pay that works’. The union body argues the rapid introduction of a comprehensive scheme could help tackle coronavirus and save many workers from hardship. The TUC says it is clear that further action is needed to help those who would still miss out on payments and to reform statutory sick pay (SSP) for the future. It calls on the government to abolish the earnings threshold for statutory sick pay, extending coverage to almost two million workers and to remove the waiting period before sick pay kicks in. It also says the government should increase sick pay to £330 a week, the equivalent of a week’s pay at the real living wage. It adds the government should provide additional funds to ensure employers can afford to pay sick pay.
Sick pay that works: TUC report on the urgent need for reform, TUC, February 2021.
 

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Canada: Flight attendant wins Covid compo fight

An Air Canada flight attendant who says she contracted Covid-19 during a series of long-haul flights last March has won a battle with the airline for workers’ compensation. An official from WorkSafeBC, the safety and compensation agency in the province of British Columbia (BC), sided with the flight attendant, rejecting the airline’s argument that the risk of getting Covid-19 on flights was “relatively low.” The province is alone in Canada for introducing ‘presumptive coverage’. This means employees who make a claim after catching Covid-19 at work do not have to prove they got it on the job if they work in an environment where the risk of exposure is significantly greater than to the public at large. In other provinces, Covid-19 claims are treated on a case-by-case basis. Wesley Lesosky, president of the airline division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), said the union would like to see the rest of the country follow BC’s example. “We'd definitely like to see the same system that British Columbia has adopted where it's just recognised — period,” Lesosky told CBC News. “For us as a union, dealing with the appeal process is incredibly cumbersome and challenging in itself, but it's definitely something we believe in because our members are frontline workers during the pandemic. It's an unfortunate thing to have to deal with, but it's definitely necessary.” In a statement, WorkSafeBC said the board received 3,444 Covid-19-related claims up to 22 January. Of the ones that have proceeded to the decision stage, 1,777 have been allowed and 954 have been disallowed. But the organisation says the vast majority of disallowed claims involved “exposure only” — where someone was exposed to the virus, but never developed the illness.
CBC News.
 

Global: Meat plant infection risks identified by tweets

Analysing social media posts is a useful method to identifying the factors responsible for higher workplace Covid-19 risks, a study has found. Researchers from UK and Canadian public health research bodies, in a 25 January paper in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health, note: “Our combined methodology of Social Media analysis with a rapid review allowed us to provide contemporaneous insight with regard to the following question: what explains the high rate of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in meat and poultry facilities?” They found potential causes were: “The working environment in these facilities is favourable to SARS-CoV-2 persistence (metallic surfaces, low temperatures, and relative humidity); the working environment may help SARS-CoV-2 transmission (crowded working places, shared transportation, production of aerosols, droplets, and fomites); and a vulnerable, low-paid workforce may be under pressure to keep working despite having symptoms of Covid-19.” The authors note: “Twitter reflects real-time concerns and is thus a useful tool to capture topics of interest in the community of users. It may also be seen as a way to address social accountability, which was defined by WHO as the obligation of medical schools to direct their education, research and service activities towards addressing the priority health concerns of the community, region and/or nation they have a mandate to serve.” They conclude: “Especially in occupational health and at a time of a pandemic, it is of critical importance that research is driven by the workers’ needs and is conducted in a timely fashion and translated into policies based on available evidence to improve the occupational health of such essential workers.”
Quentin Durand-Moreau, Graham Mackenzie, Anil Adisesh, Sebastian Straube, Xin Hui S Chan, Nathan Zelyas, Trisha Greenhalgh. Twitter Analytics to Inform Provisional Guidance for COVID-19 Challenges in the Meatpacking Industry, Annals of Work Exposures and Health, wxaa123, 2021.
 

USA: Swift progress on Covid safety at work

Just eight full days into his administration, US president Joe Biden has added new Covid-19 guidance to last week’s executive order on protection of workers from the infection (Risks 982). The US Department of Labor announced on 29 January that its workplace safety regulator, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has issued stronger worker safety guidance to help employers and workers implement a coronavirus prevention programme and better identify risks which could lead to exposure and infection. “More than 400,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and millions of people are out of work as a result of this crisis. Employers and workers can help our nation fight and overcome this deadly pandemic by committing themselves to making their workplaces as safe as possible,” said senior counsellor to the secretary of labour M Patricia Smith. “The recommendations in OSHA’s updated guidance will help us defeat the virus, strengthen our economy and bring an end to the staggering human and economic toll that the coronavirus has taken on our nation.” Acting head of OSHA Jim Frederick said: “OSHA is updating its guidance to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus and improve worker protections so businesses can operate safely and employees can stay safe and working.” The guidance covers issues including ensuring infected or potentially infected people are not in the workplace, the use of personal protective equipment and improving ventilation, good hygiene and routine cleaning.
Department of Labor news release. Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.
 

USA: Nitrogen leak at poultry plant kills six workers

A liquid nitrogen leak at a US poultry plant killed six people on 28 January, and sent at least 11 others to the hospital, some in a critical condition. The incident occurred at the Prime Pak Foods plant near Gainsville, Georgia. The firm, which earlier in the month merged into the Foundation Food Group, processes chicken for restaurants and food service operations. It is believed the asphyxiations occurred when a nitrogen line ruptured in the facility. When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporises into an odourless gas that is capable of displacing oxygen. That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the US government agency the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which is investigating the incident. Gainesville is the centre of Georgia’s massive poultry industry, with thousands of employees working for multiple processing plants. Much of the workforce, like in many meat processing plants nationwide, is Latino. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union RWDSU, which represents over 15,000 poultry workers at facilities across the southern United States, said: “The egregious, lack of standards at non-union facilities like the one in Gainesville cost essential workers their lives today. We cannot allow this to continue to happen. Workers' lives are not disposable.” Two workers died in a December 2020 nitrogen leak at a plant of the meat producer Golden West Food Group in Vernon, California.
RWDSU news release. CSB statement. New York Times. Insurance Journal. The Guardian. BBC News Online. Whittier Daily News.
 

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