Labour Research (September 2020)


Back to work: how safe is it?

This month is likely to see a major surge in people returning to workplaces after the easing of many of the restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But are government and employers doing enough to ensure the return to work is safe?

If the government’s plans for the wider reopening of schools go ahead, all pupils in all year groups will return to school full-time this month (see page 23).

This follows the go-ahead for a wide range of businesses to re-open over the summer — including non-food shops, pubs, bars, restaurants, hotels and sports and leisure centres — as well as revised guidance on social distancing (see box).

The government says that from 1 August, clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people, who are at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and have been “shielding” at home, can now go to work as long as their workplace is “COVID-secure”.

This means their employers are following Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Working safely during coronavirus guidelines.

In addition, from 1 August, instead of telling employers that those who can work at home should work from home, the government gave these employers more discretion “to make decisions about how their staff can work safely”.

Travel to work

But unions worry that returning to work under these circumstances will not be safe. Retail union Usdaw says people physically returning to work could be put at risk of exposure before they even step back through the workplace door.

One of its top priorities is ensuring safe travel to and from work for people using buses, trams and trains.

“As more workplaces reopen, travel becomes more difficult to manage,” Usdaw health and safety officer Doug Russell told Labour Research.

“Traditionally, unions didn’t get to negotiate with employers in this area as, under health and safety law, their responsibility doesn’t apply to travel to work. This will be a new bargaining area for a lot of unions.”

Usdaw has been campaigning for safe travel to and from work for several years in response to concerns from women members having to travel late at night. Some employers have listened, says Russell, but in terms of reducing the risk of COVID infection, capacity will be a huge problem in big cities like London and Manchester.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the ASLEF train drivers’ union, accused ministers of being “the masters of mixed messaging and misleading information” following the government’s “decision to ditch its COVID-19 working from home guidance” from the beginning of August and “tell millions of people to start using public transport again”.

Whelan said: “We have worked with the industry and the government throughout this pandemic to ensure the increase in capacity that allows safe travel and operation with proper social distancing.

“We cannot deliver safely anywhere near the peaks of the past and we are not convinced that this is the right time to relax procedures designed to keep passengers, and staff, safe from COVID-19 on public transport in Britain.”

Vulnerable workers

The GMB general union is particularly concerned about the return to work for CEV people and other vulnerable workers.

“We have grave concerns about the government’s handling of the crisis,” GMB national health and safety director Dan Shears said. “The decision to return to work is not based on risk. Infection rates are down but are not as low as in other countries when they took decisions regarding return to work.”

For those who have been shielding and are clinically extremely vulnerable, he said that it was “very clear” that the 1 August return-to-work date for this group “is an arbitrary date”, with no evidence the risk profile has changed.

“The GMB is clear that they should stay at home, and if not, they must have individual risk assessments, preferably with occupational health advice, and given priority for PPE [personal protective equipment]. Ideally, they should be kept from any public-facing role.”

The union is adopting a similar approach for two other vulnerable groups — Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers and disabled workers. It has developed a BAME Worker COVID Risk Indicator Tool to help workers assess the individual risks they face.

This looks at the worker’s background and personal circumstances and sets out the measures employers should take for those at low, medium and high risk of serious illness from COVID-19. It also includes model letters to help share information with employers.

“While there is no scientific evidence to suggest that someone’s ethnicity makes them more likely to be infected by COVID-19, there is increasing evidence that living circumstances and job roles put certain ethnic groups at higher risk,” Shears said. “The disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority workers and their families is becoming more apparent each day.”

Another group is disabled workers — a group Shears says has been overlooked. “There are significant issues for those with mobility, eyesight and hearing issues in complying with social distancing — and even just being able to move around.

“In offices for example, wheelchair users will be returning to work and finding a load of impediments, such as screens, that will stop them from moving safely around the workplace.”

Risk assessments

The GMB is challenging the government and employers to put safe systems in place for all workers.

This means carrying out suitable and sufficient COVID risk assessments and putting in place measures to control the risks identified. These should include the risks workers will face when travelling to and from work, and the risks for vulnerable groups of workers.

Another major priority for unions is making sure employers carry out proper risk assessments, act on the findings, and follow government guidance on keeping workplaces safe. However, they report a huge spectrum in employer practice, ranging from “very good” to “terrible”.

“Some COVID risk assessments just say ‘we will enforce social distancing’ or ‘we will have an enhanced cleaning regime’ full stop,” said Usdaw’s Doug Russell. “They need to be far more detailed with information about practical implementation.”

He pointed to supermarket giant Tesco and fashion retailer Next as examples of companies that have carried out thorough risk assessments with full consultation with unions.

“Our big success story has been Next warehouses which closed down when lockdown came along,” he added. “It carried out risk assessments, changed work practices and involved reps.

“Physical distancing is in place and it brought back workers in stages and sold the most essential items first. It’s a good model to use more widely.”

In the absence of a legal requirement for employers to publish their coronavirus risk assessments, the TUC has launched its own online platform to monitor good and bad safety practice ( This collects risk assessments in one place and identifies employers who have failed to publish them.

Good practice

Bud Hudspith, national health and safety adviser for the Unite general union, said there have been positive messages from its members in large, national companies in several sectors.

These include the automotive and electricity industries where there are structures in place to involve union safety reps in risk assessments and putting safety measures in place.

He said these employers have recognised the role of union safety reps and realised how valuable they are.

He added that “having put a lot of time and trouble into making the two-metre social distancing work, they are sticking with it”.

‘One metre-plus’

Instead of a clear rule to keep people at two metres distance from each other, the government has changed its advice on social distancing.

It now says that where it is not possible for employers to keep people two metres apart, they should keep a “one metre-plus” distance.

This means they should remain one metre apart, while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission. These mitigations include: avoiding face-to-face seating by changing office layouts; reducing the number of people in enclosed spaces; improving ventilation; using protective screens and face coverings; closing non-essential social spaces; providing hand sanitiser; and changing shift patterns so that staff work in set teams.

Unions are resisting pressure to reduce the two-metre rule to one metre-plus.

Retail union Usdaw national health and safety officer Doug Russell says this is particularly crucial for workers at higher risk of serious illness from the virus, including those who are clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable, and those from Black and minority ethnic communities.

Poor practice

But at the other end of the scale, there are “smaller and less well-prepared companies” where adequate risk assessments are not in place and where the one-metre plus is being taken to mean “we can go as near as we want”.

Some companies have not even staggered their start and finish times. And members have reported being asked to carry out close working with no social distancing in place.

“It can’t be business as usual, and a bunch of employers have not really taken much notice of the guidance,” Hudspith told Labour Research.

Union role

He said that the response to COVID “reflects how well-organised we are and if companies recognise unions.”

And he said the way companies have reacted to the pandemic reflects the way they reacted to issues before the pandemic — such as noise, manual handling and chemical risks — that have not gone away and still need to be controlled alongside COVID.

“There are really good companies, and others that didn’t care much about health and safety at other times and don’t care now,” he added. “There shouldn’t be anyone out there who doesn’t know what they should be doing, but some employers have never been committed to making workplaces safe.”

Shears said the coronavirus pandemic has been an advertisement for the value of trade unions and organising on health and safety. It has shown that union workplaces really are safer workplaces. But workers in non-organised workplaces also need protection.

As well as demanding public health measures, including a functioning test and trace system and pay at a level people can live on when self-isolating, unions have set specific health and safety demands to keep workers safe.

In addition to better protection for clinically vulnerable and BAME workers, they want clearer government guidance in areas where current advice is confusing, such as on the use of face coverings and face masks.

Unions call for clear guidance on PPE

Unions want better guidance on the role of face coverings and personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks, in controlling the risks of coronavirus.

“The idea of face coverings is to stop droplet spread if you are infected,” said Usdaw health and safety officer Doug Russell.

“They are not PPE. A respirator with a valve, for example, stops the wearer from breathing in hazardous substances, but it doesn’t stop them from breathing out droplets which could contain the virus if they are infected.

Wearing the wrong type of mask therefore defeats the object.”

The introduction of face coverings in shops is also a recipe for increased aggression — already a massive problem for shop workers, he added.

The GMB general union is calling for better guidance in this area and is challenging Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on PPE and COVID.

HSE advice is: “PPE for protection against coronavirus is generally only required for certain healthcare activities. In a non-clinical setting, there is no need to provide different PPE than you would normally have provided before the outbreak started.”

GMB national health and safety director Dan Shears says this is wrong. There are a number of sectors, including schools, where social distancing is not possible and workers will come into contact with large numbers of people who could be infected.

“We are very clear that where members can’t maintain social distancing, they should be provided with PPE,” he told Labour Research. “Even with social distancing measures in place, in shops for example, customers don’t always respect this and there is an elevated risk. PPE is needed.”

For example, security guards have been identified as a high-risk occupation by the Office for National Statistics and need to be able to access PPE quickly.

“They have to carry out body searches and can receive an aggressive response, such as being spat at, shouted at or spoken to loudly,” Shears added.


They also want the reinstatement of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) funding that has been halved over the last decade — and increased funding for local authority environmental health departments — so health and safety standards are properly enforced.

Last month, Neil Hope-Collins, deputy vice-president of the Prospect specialists’ union and Prospect HSE branch chair, revealed that there are now just 390 full-time equivalent main grade regulatory inspectors to cover the whole country.

At the end of June 2020, the HSE wrote to Parliament’s work and pensions committee to correct information it had provided about enforcement during the crisis. HSE chief executive Sarah Albon had told the committee it had issued one prohibition notice to a business since the start of the pandemic. This was incorrect. The HSE had not ordered a single workplace to close. Instead, it had issued just two improvement notices, giving businesses at least 21 days to address a risk identified by an inspector.

Roving safety reps

Meanwhile, the now 120,000-strong “army” of trade union health and safety reps stands ready to be deployed as “roving” reps (see Labour Research, July 2020, page 22).

Scottish health and safety enforcement bodies have formally recognised the role of roving safety reps, and unions have been in discussion with the Welsh government about their deployment in Wales.

The TUC is calling on the government to legislate so roving trade union safety reps can make sure workplaces right across the country are COVID-secure.


And, says the GMB’s Dan Shears: “There is a clear-cut case for PPE. No one wants to be wearing a face mask for hours on end, but there is a role for dynamic risk assessment and GMB is demanding a clear policy statement from the HSE.”

GMB national health and safety officer Lynsey Mann said the HSE guidance contradicts the hierarchy of control it sets out for other workplace hazards.

She pointed out: “We understand that PPE is a last resort. But there are lots of instances where no other control measure is possible, such as close working in construction, and public-facing roles in shops, security and healthcare where nothing else can be done.”

TUC, COVID-Secure Check (

TUC Education, Return to safe workplaces (

UK government, Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) (

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