Labour Research March 2020

Health & Safety Back-up

Coronavirus outbreak: keeping workers safe

Back-up looks at trade union advice and demands for keeping workers safe in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

At the end of January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, and the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland raised the UK risk level from low to moderate. 

This was not because the risk to individuals in the UK had changed, but because “government should plan for all eventualities”. 

The WHO was alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province in China at the end of December 2019. The new virus, COVID-19, is a never-before-seen virus that is known to have mutated and is transmissible from human to human. 

It can cause severe respiratory disease, including pneumonia, and can be life threatening. However, the WHO says more than 80% of patients will recover. And those most at risk include older people and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung diseases.

By mid-February, the virus had spread rapidly within China and had been identified in 25 more countries around the world. It had infected nearly 71,500 people— the vast majority in China — and killed 1,772, including three outside China. Nine people had tested positive for the virus in the UK. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all travel to Hubei Province, and against all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China. 

Last month, the government also brought in the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 to impose restrictions on anyone considered by health professionals to be at risk of spreading the virus. 

The ITF global transport union federation described airline, border, cruise workers, seafarers and port workers as being “in the frontline of the outbreak”. 

It called on governments and transport companies to implement all measures available to them to limit the risk of transmission of the virus to transport workers globally. 

It demanded governments implement strict biosecurity protocols in airports and ports — including procedures to identify potentially infected passengers, crew and seafarers from areas of concern — to contain the outbreak, minimise any chance of exposure and safeguard workers. 

It also called on airlines, airports, cruise line operators, shipping companies and port operators to:

• provide workers with the latest information regarding the outbreak; 

• follow best practice regarding health and safety protocols and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE); and

• put into effect procedures to identify symptomatic travellers, crew and/or workers; and 

• set clear guidelines for workers managing suspected cases of infection.

And it called for safe crewing and manning levels to be applied to ensure crews have adequate rest in line with national laws.

At the end of January 2020, following confirmation from the chief medical officer for England that two people had tested positive for coronavirus, the GMB general union called for better protection for airport staff. 

It said workers at Manchester Airport were provided with face masks but not gloves or even hand sanitiser. Staff at East Midlands, Liverpool and Stanstead airports had also raised concerns over a lack of PPE, the union reported. 

A GMB members’ briefing on coronavirus sets out that:

• employers have a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Control of Substances Hazardous Health 2002 (COSHH) to reduce the risks from exposure to biological hazards to as low as is reasonably practicable;

• under COSHH, employers must identify who may be harmed by a biological agent, and how they may be exposed;

• employers should regularly consult the latest guidance from Public Health England, Health Protection Scotland and the Health and Safety Executive when carrying out and updating the COSHH assessment; and

• the assessment should include the identification of potential cases of coronavirus; isolation procedures and policies; and control measures such as negative pressure ventilation and the provision and safe use of appropriate PPE.

For most employers, the risk of an outbreak is low and they should follow the same precautions taken to avoid flu contamination. But specific precautions will be required in sectors including transport, health and social care. 

The NASUWT teachers’ union has advised all schools they should follow guidance from Public Health England, Public Health Wales, Health Protection Scotland or the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland. 

Where teachers are absent from work due to self-quarantine, this should be treated as a medical suspension rather than sick leave and full pay should apply. Absence should also be disregarded for absence management procedures. 

Advice from the HR professionals’ organisation, the CIPD, is also that employees who need to self-quarantine or who are sent home as a precaution should be on full pay.

Statutory Sick Pay

The government has announced that Statutory Sick Pay will be made available from day one to employees who are self-isolating.

The TUC and unions campaigned for this change and have also highlighted the need for workers who are not entitled to claim SSP to be paid when unable to work.

The union also advises schools to review risk assessments for visits abroad, taking into account not only the risk of infection, but also the risk of becoming stranded, should the situation deteriorate. 

Health authorities stress the need for good hand hygiene, and the union says schools should ensure washing facilities are clean, with adequate supplies of soap, and encourage all staff and pupils to regularly wash their hands for at least 20 seconds.