Workplace Report April 2020


Unions protecting workers

Last month the government ordered thousands of businesses and organisations to close their workplaces to slow the spread of Covid-19. But millions of critical health, social care and other workers are still working, often without adequate PPE. And some employers in non-essential areas are forcing their staff to come to work. Workplace Report looks at what unions are doing to protect workers.

A fatal combination of missed opportunities, ignored warning signs and a failure to stop non-essential work have made the coronavirus crisis “bigger and more deadly” in the UK, according to a new analysis prepared for the Hazards Campaign by Stirling University professor Andrew Watterson.

Health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed on 11 April that 19 UK health workers had died after contracting coronavirus. Two days later, the death toll among London transport workers had reached 18. Public and commercial services PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka reported that members delivering frontline services in prisons, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the HMRC tax office and the Home Office had also died after becoming infected with the coronavirus.

“We are weeks into the pandemic and frontline staff are dying from a negligent government who are failing to provide basic personal protective equipment (PPE), never mind a standard of PPE that would keep all health and care workers and all essential workers safe,” said Hazards Campaign spokesperson Janet Newsham.

Unions expose PPE crisis

There has been widespread condemnation of the lack of PPE for frontline NHS staff, highlighted by their unions. Public services union UNISON says thousands of people working in the NHS, social care and other services have contacted its PPE hotline expressing anxiety about the lack of gloves, masks, eye protectors and gowns.

“Staff from across the UK’s public services say they’re scared that without the right protective equipment, they risk catching the virus and passing it on to their families, or the elderly and vulnerable people they work with and care for,” said the union.

“No-one doubts the pressures the government is under,” said UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis. “But the time for excuses has passed. Ministers have been saying for weeks that the PPE situation is in hand. That there’s enough to go around and it’s just a matter of logistics. But it isn’t good enough”.

Prentis described Office for National Statistics figures showing there have been hundreds of coronavirus-related deaths in care homes as a national scandal and said elderly and vulnerable residents face a death sentence because staff lack PPE.

“Care workers report that protective kit is still being locked away, having to make single-use masks last all week and being told they don’t need masks because residents aren’t displaying virus symptoms,” he added. “Many talk too of there not being enough essential items like hand sanitiser, gloves and visors to go around. Care staff working in residential homes and out in the community feel like they – and the people they care for – are bottom of the priority list for PPE.”

General union the GMB has launched a Get Me PPE toolkit to support key workers. This includes a health and safety law factsheet highlighting section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which provides protection for those refusing to carry out work that puts them at “serious and imminent danger”.

It contains a guide to getting the correct PPE based on government guidelines. This should not be used as a “definitive guide” to PPE, it advises: “You and your job need to be properly risk assessed by a competent person to identify: how the job can be done safely; what control measures should be introduced; and what PPE should be provided.”

The toolkit includes updated healthcare guidance from Public Health England (PHE) but makes clear: “This guidance is not GMB guidance – it is from government. It’s therefore the minimum level of PPE required. Always get a risk assessment. Always go by what you think you need for your safety.”

It advises:

1. work from home if at all possible, especially if you or someone you live with is pregnant or has underlying health conditions;

2. stay two metres away from all colleagues and the public on your way to and from work and at all times during work; 

3. if you can’t do either 1 or 2 your employer must put protective measures in place;

4. stick to all infection control procedures at work including frequent rigorous hand washing. Time must be allowed for this;

5. ensure if you are in close proximity to patients or residents going to and from hospital environments that they have been issued with a surgical mask, if they can tolerate it;

6. ensure you are not being called into any workplace meetings where you will be in a crowded room with others; and

7. ensure all shared equipment is wiped down before and after use.

The RMT transport union’s advice on coronavirus to members in the rail and bus industries is that employers should use risk assessments and a five-step hierarchy of control. They should:

• eliminate or remove the hazard, by postponing or cancelling the work for example;

• substitute or replace the process with a less hazardous one, by moving workers further away from each other, for example, while ensuring the new process is not more risky;

• use work equipment or other measures to prevent or reduce the risks, such as screens to reduce contact between workers and the travelling public, with priority given to collective over individual measures;

• use administrative controls such as reducing the time workers are exposed to the hazard, through job rotation, enforcing the two metre social distancing rules, and performing risk assessments; and

• provide PPE. Although this should be used as a last resort, PPE to control Covid-19 transmission should, as a minimum, include gloves and goggles, masks and visors.

There is also fury among unions and safety campaigners that the government and regulators have failed to crack down on companies continuing to operate in unsafe conditions in non-essential areas (see HSE Monitor in this issue).

With input from the TUC and trade unions, the government has put in place a package of financial support to help businesses, self-employed people and workers affected by the crisis. Many companies have closed their workplaces because they are not able to comply with social distancing rules. Scottish food company Tunnocks, for example, agreed to pay its staff 90% of their wages when it closed, after considering every alternative, to protect its 600 staff against the spread of the disease and to allow them to self-isolate.

But Newsham pointed out: “We have workers side-by-side building luxury hotels when almost every hotel in the land is shut down and in crisis, and building power stations that won’t go on line for years. How can these jobs have been considered ‘essential’?”.

Work should be critical or unavoidable

Employers should not expect workers to go to work at their normal workplace unless it is absolutely not possible or they are a critical worker, says new UNISON bargaining guidance.

“The emphasis should be on trying to find ways of working from home wherever possible in order to comply with the government advice ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’,” it adds.

Rail and bus unions have called for public transport services to be provided for essential key workers only.

“Transport workers have the right to be protected from non-essential travellers who will only contribute to the spread of the virus,” says the RMT. The TSSA has also called for all transport workers not essential to the safe running of services to be stood down without further delay.

Government advice is that businesses and workplaces should make every possible effort to enable working from home as a first option, and where working from home is not possible, they should make every effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines. Where they cannot follow in full those guidelines, they should consider whether the activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission.

Workplaces should avoid crowding and minimise opportunities for the virus to spread by maintaining a distance of at least two metres (three steps) between individuals wherever possible. Other measures include providing places for workers to wash their hands with soap and water, and encouraging everyone to do so regularly, as well as providing hand sanitiser and tissues for staff and encouraging them to use them. Employers should frequently clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that are touched regularly.

Coronavirus: the government’s response

The Covid-19 crisis has been caused by a novel, never-before-seen strain of coronavirus, first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, on 31 December 2019. In late January 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, and on 11 March 2020 it reported “Covid-19 can be characterized as a pandemic”.

The virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes and, although the WHO says more than 80% of people infected will be asymptomatic or will have mild disease and recover, in around 3-4% of reported cases the virus is fatal.

The government strategy to slow the spread of the virus has focused on self-isolating (or quarantine) and social distancing, while shielding the most vulnerable and emphasising the importance of hand hygiene. Those who are 70 years old and over, those under 70 with an underlying health condition, and pregnant women are likely to be more seriously affected.

Social distancing means reducing day-to-day contact with other people. From 23 March 2020, members of the public have been instructed not to meet friends or relatives they do not live with. They should only leave home to buy essential food and medicine; exercise once a day; seek medical help; or, for those unable to work from home, travel to work. When leaving home, they should stay two metres away from people outside their household wherever possible.

Anyone with a high temperature or a new, continuous cough must stay at home – self-isolate – until the symptoms have ended, and in all cases for at least seven days. Everyone else in the household must stay at home for at least 14 days after the first person’s symptoms first appear, even if they themselves do not have symptoms. If anyone else develops symptoms during that time, they must stay home for an additional seven days from when they developed symptoms.

With more than one in five UK deaths being linked to coronavirus, and with hundreds dying each day, the government is facing considerable criticism over its response, including the lack of testing and PPE, and its failure to close down non-essential workplaces.

“Continually over the last few weeks, government officials have said that testing is coming,” said Hazards Campaign spokesperson Janet Newsham. “And weeks before, international experts declared that the only way to win the battle against the virus spread was to test and track. Only this will save the lives of both the front-line workers and the rest of society. We have to attack the spread of the virus and test, track and quarantine is the only way proven way to achieve this”.

Shock surveys

But union surveys show many employers are failing to put in place these basic measures.

A GMB union survey found up to 98% of the 4,000 people working at the online fashion retailer Asos warehouse in Grimethorpe, Barnsley felt unsafe at work amid the pandemic. Workers reported no social distancing measures, a complicated clocking-in system which means large numbers of people gather in a small area, and hundreds of workers all breaking for lunch at the same time.

At the giant JD Sports warehouse in Rochdale, shopworkers’ union Usdaw says hundreds of staff have expressed fears that it is a breeding ground for coronavirus, due to poor hygiene and crowded working conditions. It called on the company to close the warehouse to protect 5,000 staff and the wider Rochdale community.

Preliminary results from a survey of over 2,000 call centre workers in Scotland, by Strathclyde University professor Philip Taylor, found 57% of those still working have been designated as essential but only 18% believe they actually are. Over a third continue to be required to work despite not being informed they are essential workers, and half of all workers surveyed said they are working face-to-face with a co-worker. Government guidance says staff should work side by side, or facing away from each other if possible. Where face-to-face contact is essential, it should be kept to 15 minutes or less wherever possible.

Only a third of workers report that their employer is successfully implementing workplace distancing; three quarters said they were not provided with hand-sanitiser; and over half are dissatisfied with the cleaning of work surfaces. Two thirds of respondents have asked to work from home, but only two per cent have had their request granted.

“Even where workers are essential, vital safety precautions are not being taken,” said Scottish TUC (STUC) general secretary designate Roz Foyer. “People report being crammed into lifts, working in environments with no proper ventilation, working face to face with colleagues and being required to continue to have meetings and ‘huddles’.”

She called on “every call centre in Scotland, unionised or not, to offer immediate access to union health and safety reps to conduct a full assessment of working conditions in the sector”.

Departments fail on distancing

A PCS survey of almost 10,000 members, carried out at the end of March, showed even the government is not following its own advice. It found a third of government departments were still not observing social distancing measures and around 15% do not have clear policies on handwashing at work.

Serwotka said there were reports that members coming into work to deliver frontline services are under extreme pressure, with some private contractors acting in a “very poor way” and telling people not to observe social distancing measures. He has written to the Cabinet Office with the following urgent and immediate demands:

• where there is a Covid-19 case in an office or workplace, including a suspected case, it must close immediately and not reopen until there has been a deep clean and risk assessment agreed with the union;

• social distancing must be implemented in workplaces at all times; and

• the default position must be that everyone should work from home. Only those in critical roles, which should be clearly defined and agreed with the union, should report for work in the workplace.

The general Unite union has reported examples of workplaces where things are so bad that workers have walked out. Around 80 “essential” employees at ABP Meats in Lurgan refused work over fears for their safety. They demanded adequate social distancing and deep cleans on workstations where workers have self-isolated with coronavirus symptoms. Another 60 workers refused to start shifts at Linden Foods in Dungannon, pointing to the absence of social distancing for workers on the boning line, in the canteen and changing areas, and at entry and exit points. Unite said management had provided no additional washing facilities and failed to stagger breaks.

“Workers have been reporting to Unite that those exhibiting symptoms are still allowed to work as are those with family members who are self-isolating as a result of being in the high risk health category,” said Unite regional officer Brian Hewitt.

Although the situation remains dire for many, unions are winning improvements. Communications workers’ union the CWU reports a “totally unacceptable” response from Royal Mail’s chief executive and senior management team to its proposals for a comprehensive crisis-working plan, but says “any progress that has been made on safety in offices across the UK has been delivered by the hard work of our representatives’ structure”.

The union is calling for a suspension of all non-essential D2D (unaddressed mails) delivery, priority for medical equipment and services to the vulnerable, and alternating individuals’ working days to reduce numbers in the workplace at the same time.

It also told its members: “If PPE is not in place for all employees, or in any workplace, then that office should cease its operations until the equipment has been provided to all employees. This includes gloves and hand sanitisers. If social distancing measures are not in place, in line with the government advice, then the office should be closed until this is rectified.”

A vibrant #ShutTheSites campaign in the construction industry appears to be having some impact on closing non-essential workplaces (see HSE Monitor in this issue). And Serwotka reported that as a result of the union intervening, twice as many PCS members are working at home; more than 76% of staff according to a Cabinet Office estimate.

Unions in Scotland have negotiated an agreement with the Scottish government that the UK-wide guidance on PPE applies to the country’s care workers. The unions stepped in after a letter from its chief nursing officer said masks were unnecessary. This would have meant home and social carers receiving less protection than colleagues in other parts of the UK. The advice is now that care workers can wear a fluid-resistant face mask along with any other appropriate PPE that they feel is necessary in carrying out their work.

Bus staff at risk

Unite has secured company sick pay from day one for London’s bus staff following intense pressure from the union on bus operators, Transport for London (TfL), the London mayor Sadiq Khan, and the government for better protection for bus workers. At least 12 of the capital’s bus workers have lost their lives to the virus and the union is concerned they are being hit disproportionately by the disease.

Securing company sick pay from day one, regardless of length of service, means that bus workers fearful of having contracted the illness can stay home safe in the knowledge that they will not be plunged into immediate hardship, the union said. It is also fighting for the best in PPE, masks and gloves to be available for bus workers, and for rear door entry trials to be abandoned and sealed front doors rolled out immediately across the capital’s buses.

The union points to the agreement it has reached at engineering company Rolls Royce as an example of good practice.

Unite highlights good practice at Rolls-Royce

Unite has agreed a package with engineering company Rolls-Royce that includes a “stringent health and safety regime”, including a one-way system, to enable required employees to continue to work during the current emergency.

Rolls-Royce has major plants in Derby, Bristol, Glasgow and Barnoldswick, Lancashire. It closed production at Derby but opened up gradually from early April under a new safety regime, and up to 60% of the workforce could be employed on a rotation shift system.

“A week’s shutdown allowed management and safety representatives to walk the plant and look at every task,” Unite regional officer, Tony Tinley, told Workplace Report. “They looked at how many people could work on every task in every area and for two-person jobs, what PPE they would need. They also looked at other ways of doing tasks to reduce the number of people.”

This has been done nationally for a workforce of over 20,000.

“One of the key things was how to decide how many people could work safely per shift and debate whether a job was necessary,” he added. “Between 8% and 60% of the workforce will be coming into work in different plants. Canteens are closed and the company is ensuring people can socially distance while they are on their breaks.”

There is also a break between shifts when all touchpoints are cleaned with sanitiser.

Unite is working with other employers to share the good practice developed at Rolls-Royce.

“First and foremost is safety and our reps are driving this message,” Tinley added. “Rolls Royce have recognised they need the union on board in order to give credibility to the measures they have put in place.”

On 28 April, unions will be marking International Workers’ Memorial Day to “Remember the dead and fight for the living”, and will be spreading the message that, during this pandemic and generally, union workplaces are safer workplaces. (see page 13).

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Unite, Rolls-Royce coronavirus package puts health & safety centre stage, says Unite (

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