LRD Booklets February 2021

Working safely with COVID-19 - a guide for workplace reps



[pages 3-5]

This booklet aims to be a practical guide for workplace reps on keeping workplaces safe through the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the TUC says, trade unions can play a vital role in keeping workplaces safer and workers informed of their rights. Working together with employers “can make a significant difference to ensure the effects of the outbreak are minimised” it says. It can help ensure that “the workforce is educated and informed on how to limit transmission”, as well as “protected and equipped appropriately”. These measures will “ultimately limit further loss of life”. Unions will also play a major part in keeping infected workers at home and not in the workplace, it adds.

The UNISON public services union says trade union safety reps are in “a unique position to help and support members”. Action can range from “simply being there, listening and talking to members” to setting out what is being done to keep them safe, to “explaining the facts as you know it, which in itself can help allay fears”.

Safety reps have important rights they can use to help make workplaces safe. These include the right to:

• represent members to the employer — to ensure those at particular risk of developing severe illness as a result of COVID have the opportunity to work from home or, if that is not possible, are redeployed to roles with less hazardous duties, for example;

• carry out inspections and investigate potential hazards — to make sure everything possible is being done to reduce the risk of spreading the infection and those working on the frontline of the pandemic are provided with, and trained in the use of, appropriate gloves, masks, aprons and eye protection; and

• be consulted on matters affecting members — such as asking workers to self-isolate, adopting new hygiene procedures, or performing duties or working in new environments they were previously not familiar with.

These all have the potential to affect workers’ safety, so it is vital that employers are consulting on and discussing these changes with unions and their reps.

The booklet’s main focus is on the action workplace reps can take to keep workplaces safe during the pandemic. It refers to relevant health and safety law and guidance, as well as employment and equality law. However, it does not provide detailed guidance on this legislation. This can be found in other LRD booklets, including the annual Health and safety law and Law at work guides, the November 2020 Tackling racism and inequality booklet and Equality law at work 2018 — a guide for trade unions and working people. The focus is on the measures safety reps can demand to keep workers safe from COVID infection.

The pandemic is also affecting workers’ mental health and leading to even higher levels of anxiety, stress and depression as a result of fear of infection and its emotional toll and because of massively increased workloads for some groups of workers.

Unions are reporting members in areas like health and social care are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the heavy loss of life among patients and colleagues. In addition, retail union Usdaw says that unfortunately, the pandemic has brought out the worst behaviour in some customers. The union recently reported that almost nine in 10 shopworkers were abused last year.

The psychosocial risks of COVID are not covered in this booklet, but they are covered regularly in LRD’s Labour Research and Workplace Report magazines.

It also does not cover homeworkers’ health and safety as this is the subject of a forthcoming LRD booklet in 2021. Government advice on working from home  —  which has changed throughout the pandemic and during the national lockdown that began in early January 2021 — is that everyone who can work from home should do so. The government is also strongly advising those who are classified as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV), and at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19 infection, that they should work from home. Even if they cannot work from home they should not attend work.

The booklet summarises official BEIS business department and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on what employers should be doing to keep workplaces safe during the pandemic. Again, this has changed throughout the pandemic so it is important that reps refer to the latest guidance. The TUC and unions have published invaluable information, advice and guidance on keeping workers safe and this is referenced throughout the booklet.

It also looks at what help reps can expect from the enforcement agencies. For most workplaces this will be the HSE and local authorities, although there are also sector-specific safety enforcement bodies including the Office of Road and Rail. Directors of public health are responsible for controlling local outbreaks and will work with local health protection teams. “Upper tier” — unitary metropolitan and county councils — lead on local outbreak planning.

The booklet includes examples of good practice where unions and employers have worked together to ensure workplaces are safe, and examples of where action by reps and members acting collectively — including taking and threatening strike action over safety concerns and refusing to put themselves in “serious and imminent danger” — has led to improvements.

The COVID crisis has changed perceptions about the importance of health and safety and the vital role unions and their reps play in keeping workplaces safe. A number of unions have reported increases both in membership and in the number of members coming forward to take on the role of rep and who are prepared to act to keep their workmates safe.

“Health and safety is no longer referred to as red tape but is seen as critical to maintaining a safe working environment and ensuring our communities can survive this pandemic,” said Ian Hodson, president of the BFAWU foodworkers’ union. “The Tories, who have done so much to undermine health and safety, are being forced to admit its critical role in keeping us all safe.”

Since COVID-19 has gripped the UK, risk to health at work is now “a majoritarian concern”, says the Resolution Foundation think tank.

“In schools and shops, factories and warehouses, when driving buses or caring for others, workers today encounter a health threat the scale of which employers and the health and safety system have never had to address before,” says its November 2020 briefing, Failed safe? Enforcing workplace health and safety in the age of COVID-19.

The pandemic has “starkly exposed the fact that bad working conditions kill”, according to Scottish TUC general secretary Roz Foyer. But health and safety reps have risen to the occasion (see box) and held employers to account. Coming out of the pandemic, unions and their reps will be in a stronger position to build on action they have taken to keep workers safe and continue to tackle the unsafe and unhealthy work it has exposed.

Union activists recognised as unsung heroes of the pandemic

The BFAWU foodworkers’ branch at Greencore Northampton, which saw a large COVID outbreak in the summer of 2020, received a “Rose of Northamptonshire Award” for support to members during the COVID-19 crisis. The Northamptonshire County Council award recognises unsung heroes and aims to “identify, and to express thanks to those groups or individuals who have worked tirelessly to keep our communities safe, and our businesses moving during the global COVID-19 crisis”.

Among other things, the branch has a Facebook group page to keep members up to date on union negotiations with management, including in several different languages.

London bus driver and Unite safety rep Moe Manir was recognised as an unsung hero by the memoir-writing service Story Terrace. One of his colleagues nominated him for the work he did to get COVID safety measures in place — including shutting off the front doors of buses and sealing cab screens. He used social media to bring together, recruit and organise drivers, and to campaign for better safety and keep them updated.