Coronavirus lockdown: what health and safety reps can do

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The Covid-19 pandemic has upended normal working practices, especially for trade union health and safety reps. Whether working from home or as key workers, everyone is facing new and often difficult ways of working.

On International Workers Memorial Day, we vow not only to “remember the dead” but also to “fight for the living”.

In the context of this pandemic, that means doing all we can to keep workers safe from the virus.

A global pandemic doesn’t relieve employers of their duty of care to protect workers, as outlined under section 2 of the Health and Safety Act 74.

So make sure you’re aware of your rights as a health and safety rep during these difficult times.

Employers must consult health and safety reps

The Safety Reps and Safety Committee Regs 77 (SRSC 77) sets out the functions of a health and safety rep.

In practical terms, this means your employer should be discussing changes to working practices with you. This includes risk assessments when its time to return to work.

Your employer doesn’t have to take your advice, but they must still give you the chance to put your views forward and give you a reasonable response to them.

Hierarchy of risk

Regulation 5 of the SRSC regs covers the inspection of the workplace.

If you’re a key worker, then you should be checking on any new procedures such as the provision of sufficient hand sanitiser, hand washing facilities, PPE and places where likely bottlenecks can occur such as doorways and welfare and canteen facilities.

Ask yourself if your employer has made special provision for these areas? And is there a risk assessment in place?

Given the scale and severity of the issue, putting up posters is not enough. Employers should observe the following hierarchy of risk control:

1. Eliminate
Can the risk of breaking social distancing be eliminated using alternate working methods like home working? If not:

2. Reduce
Can the risk of breaking social distancing be reduced by limiting the number of workers in any given area or supply more welfare facilities? If not:

3. Isolate
Can the risk of breaking social distancing be isolated by separating areas of the workplace? If not:

4. Control
Can the risk of breaking social distancing be controlled through supervision, clearly marked areas of access and two metre markings similar to supermarkets? If not – or if the risk still can’t be sufficiently avoided – then issue PPE.

5. Personal Protective Equipment
Following the risk assessment, clear and identified PPE should be issued free of charge. Regulation 4 of the PPE states:

Every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective.

This means that PPE should not be the first means of controlling the risk of contracting Covid-19 in the workplace

6. Discipline
Through proper training, advice and clear understandable policies and notices including posters.

Homeworking

If you’re homeworking for the first time and there isn’t a homeworking policy in place, now is a great time to negotiate one. Our recent webinar on health and safety in the home might also answer some of your questions on homeworking and ergonomics, mental health and reasonable adjustments.

Regulation 2 of the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) states that suitable and sufficient analysis of workstations should be completed.

It is reasonable for the employer to ask the employee to carry out their own assessment. The TUC has produced a ‘Risk assessments for homeworkers’ eNote to help reps and employees stay safe at home.

As a rep, you should familiarise yourself with the HSE’s working with display screen equipment document to advise members of issues around this.

If members are unhappy with their workstation, they should take photos to give the H&S rep and employer a clearer understanding of any possible risks.

You can still conduct workplace inspections of sorts by collating photos of members workstations.

Things to consider are factors such as working time, posture, seating conditions, height of workstation and lighting glare.

Some of us like to play on our laptop on the sofa or in bed. This might be fine for short burst of social media but it's no substitute for a safe workstation!

Keep your committee going

Working from home shouldn’t stop the essential work of Health and Safety committees. If anything, the opposite is true. There are lots of digital tools you can use to have virtual meetings

The challenges you face as a rep might never be greater. H&S reps play a pivotal role in ensuring the safety and welfare of members. Our movement thanks you for your efforts and hard work.