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Risks is the TUC's weekly newsletter for safety reps and others, sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors.



Work from home comes in with Plan B

The UK government’s Covid Plan B is to come into effect to limit the spread of the omicron variant, the prime minister has said. The new rules, some of which start on 10 December and which have met with an angry reaction from Tory backbenchers, include masks in most public places, Covid passes for some venues and a work from home recommendation. Announcing the move, which is expected to be approved in the Commons, Boris Johnson said: “So first, we will reintroduce the guidance to work from home. Employers should use the rest of this week to discuss working arrangements with their employees.” He told an 8 December Downing Street press conference that from 13 December “you should work from home if you can. Go to work if you must but work from home if you can. And I know this will be hard for many people, but by reducing your contacts in the workplace you will help slow transmission.” The prime minister described the new rules as “proportionate and responsible” after the emergence of the omicron virus variant. He said early indications suggested the new variant “could lead to a big rise in hospitalisations and therefore sadly in deaths” - though a lot is still unknown. From 10 December the plan also requires face masks in more public settings - including theatres and cinemas. The NHS Covid Pass system will be introduced in many larger indoor venues. Ministers have repeatedly said there are no plans for another lockdown in England. “It's not a lockdown, it's Plan B,” the prime minister told the Downing Street news conference.
Prime Minister’s Office news release and prime minister’s statement, 8 December 2021. BBC News Online. The Guardian. Morning Star.

Protect jobs and workers as Plan B takes effect

The TUC has called for Treasury support to protect jobs, and for the sick pay system to be fixed to reduce the spread of the omicron variant, response to the 8 December announcement by the UK government that ‘Plan B’ restrictions are to come into effect. The union body stated that when a work from home instruction was last in place in June 2021, nearly two million jobs were protected by furlough, including nearly half of in the jobs in hospitality that were eligible. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Requiring people to work from home over the busy Christmas period will hit jobs – unless ministers bring back furlough. Cleaners, receptionists, conference and banqueting staff and hospitality and retail workers will be short of work if people don’t come into offices. Ministers must reassure workers in hard-hit sectors like hospitality, leisure and travel that their livelihoods are secure.” She added: “Furlough was the great success in the first response to the pandemic. The rise of the omicron variant shows why the UK needs a permanent short-time working scheme – ready to go when a new crisis hits. If we’re serious about stopping omicron, ministers must fix our broken sick pay system, so every worker gets a decent amount to live off if they are sick or have to self-isolate. That’s how we make sure people can follow the rules and stop the spread.”
TUC news release. TSSA news release.

Many festive workers will get no statutory sick pay

A new analysis from the TUC had revealed that 647,000 workers in hospitality, retail, and arts and entertainment – key sectors for Christmas festivity – do not qualify for statutory sick pay. The union body is warning that with new tougher self-isolation rules, these workers are at risk of being left with no work and no income over the Christmas period.  The new rules, introduced as a consequence of the omicron variant, require anyone coming into contact with a confirmed omicron case to self-isolate for ten days, even if they have been vaccinated. But hundreds of thousands of festive workers, who are most likely to come in contact with people over the busy festive period, receive no sick pay while self-isolating, and could face drastic cuts to their income over Christmas. The only other sector of the economy with a higher proportion of workers who do not qualify for statutory sick pay is those employed by households – for example domestic cleaners. The UK has the least generous statutory sick pay in Europe, worth just £96.35 per week. And it is only available to employees earning £120 per week or more. TUC research has found that this leaves around a third of workers – over 10 million people – with sick pay that is too low to meet basic living costs, or no sick pay at all. Calling for sick pay to be increased to the Living Wage and made available to all workers, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Our sick pay system is broken. No one should be left to choose between doing the right thing or putting food on the table. And we all risk having our Christmas ruined because our sick pay system doesn’t do what’s needed to stop the virus spreading.” She added: “Ministers must extend sick pay protection to every worker. And it should worth at least the same as the Living Wage to make sure people can afford to isolate.”
TUC news release.

Sage called for key Plan B measures

The UK government’s top scientific advisers had urged ministers to introduce vaccine passports and tell people to work-from-home in a bid to combat the spread of omicron, five days before a move to Plan B including both measures was confirmed. Remote working is a “highly relevant” way to reduce transmission of the new Covid-19 variant, according to notes from the 3 December meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). The omicron variant has sparked alarm among scientists over its contagiousness and potential to evade vaccines. The Sage meeting calling for the reinstatement of the work from home guidance was chaired by the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance. The committee also warned ministers that they may not be able to wait for further data before deciding whether to bring in more restrictions. “Even if measures are introduced immediately, there may not be time to fully ascertain whether they are sufficient before decisions are needed on further action,” the document states. “Past Sage advice on measures to reduce transmission remains highly relevant, including but not limited to advice around ventilation, face coverings, hand hygiene, reducing contacts (eg. by working from home), vaccination certification, and the importance of effective testing, contact tracing and isolation,” it adds. This week it was revealed that more than half of omicron cases in the UK have occurred in people who have had at least two vaccination doses.
Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) meeting minutes. Evening Standard.

Still more needs to be done, says UNISON

Health service union UNISON has said the UK government’s decision to move forward with ‘Plan B’ Covid measures in England is welcome, but added more needs to be done. UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “It’s the right thing to introduce extra measures. Everyone should be doing what they can to stop the spread of Covid, particularly with the uncertainty around the omicron variant.” She added: “The NHS is already feeling the strain so helping to reduce infections is vital to ease the impact on overworked health staff and treatment backlogs. Many people may be tired of restrictions, but they must remember huge numbers of key workers – keeping the public safe and running essential services – will have no choice but to go to their workplaces.” The UNISON leader concluded: “If the virus is to be tackled properly, much more needs to be done in schools where infection rates are high. That includes air filtration and mask-wearing in all areas of secondary schools. Other measures such as proper sick pay across the care sector would make a significant difference.”
UNISON news release.

Government must act to prevent school disruption

Support staff, teachers, school leaders and families are uniting to urge the government to better protect pupils and staff from Covid in schools in the lead up to Christmas. With increased uncertainty due to increasing cases of the omicron variant and classroom absences rising, four education unions - UNISON, GMB, Unite and NASUWT - are calling on the government to act without delay to minimise disruption by introducing additional safety measures. The unions want ministers to provide schools with air filtration devices for use wherever airflow problems are detected and make face masks mandatory in all areas of secondary schools. They also want to see full pay for staff who need to isolate due to Covid and are calling for extra resources for schools to contact pupils and families who have been close to a positive case, as NHS Test and Trace no longer does this routinely in schools. The four unions have organised a day of online activities to encourage staff, parents and pupils to lobby politicians to persuade the government to bring in these extra measures to reduce the risk of growing Covid spread. They will be writing to their MPs, tweeting and posting photos on social media with speech bubbles with the slogans ‘Protect education’ and ‘Protect pupils’. The prime minister’s 8 December Plan B announcement made no mention of schools.
GMB news release. NASUWT news release. NEU news release.

Homeworking must be the default, say civil servants

Ahead of the government’s announcement that Plan B, including a direction to work from home where possible, would be deployed civil service union PCS warned that ministers could be guilty of a “dereliction of duty” if they failed to make the move. In the 2 December warning, the union said a failure to recommend working from home would “endanger” the health and safety of public servants who have fought to deliver vital services during the pandemic. The UK government has been increasing the number of civil servants in workplaces since the summer – when work from home guidance was axed as restrictions were lifted. The union is calling for additional protections, such as social distancing and mask-wearing when people are moving around the workplace, to be implemented once more for those civil servants who are unable to work from home. The PCS call came amid growing concern about the emergence of omicron, which scientists believe could be more transmissible than the dominant delta variant, and more able to evade existing vaccine protection.
PCS news release. The Independent.

Rising cases at DVLA heighten omicron fears

Civil service union PCS has written to the vehicle licensing agency DVLA amid ‘growing concerns’ about Covid cases on its Swansea site and developments in the pandemic. In the email to DVLA HR and estates director Louise White and senior HR business partner Helen B Davies, the union points to the “prospect of a more infectious and vaccine-resistant strain – omicron - and its impacts on the health of DVLA staff.” PCS says it is asking the DVLA leadership for details of the precautionary measures that the department is taking to secure the safety of DVLA staff. According to the union, cases on site in Swansea have been rising since mid-August, when it says the DVLA forced 450 staff back to work. Since then, DVLA has increased the number of staff working on site further and intends to continue increasing on-site numbers into the new year. According to PCS: “We are incredibly concerned by the situation at present and are committed to working with the DVLA in the best interests of staff safety. We will keep DVLA members updated on the response from the DVLA and hope we can work together to find a resolution and keep staff safe.”
PCS news release.

Pregnant women fear Covid job loss

More than a third of pregnant women fear losing their jobs due to safety concerns about Covid in the workplace and over half have raised related concerns with their employers, a new survey has found. Research from Maternity Action shows 36 per cent are concerned about their work if they take time off or ask their employer to do more to protect them from Covid. In the survey of more than 400 pregnant women, over two-thirds (69 per cent) said they were fairly or very worried about catching Covid because of their work. A fifth of respondents (20 per cent) said they took time off or even left their job because they were so concerned about becoming infected. More than half (59 per cent) raised concerns about their health and safety with their employer but, of these, almost one in five (17 per cent) said their employer took no action to address their concerns. The charity is urging ministers to immediately overhaul health and safety rules for pregnant women in the workplace. Ros Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said: “The situation for pregnant women is dire and is only getting worse as the pandemic progresses. They are frankly right to be worried – because the system that is supposed to protect them is not fit for purpose. There is a vast gap between what the law says and actual employer practice, leaving women under huge pressure to work in unsafe conditions.” She said officials and organisations given the responsibility of enforcing workplace health and safety had “shown themselves wholly inadequate to the task.” Women are being left with an “unenviable choice” of either taking their employer to a tribunal to get basic health and safety protections or “carrying on working in an unsafe environment.”
Unsafe and unsupported: workplace health and safety for pregnant women in the pandemic, Maternity Action, December 2021. Maternity Action campaign - ask your MP to improve the health and safety at work of pregnant women.
Personnel Today. People Management. The Guardian.

Frontline healthcare workers face traumatic stress

There could be 230,000 new referrals for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) across England as a direct or indirect result of the pandemic, according to modelling by The Strategy Unit, an NHS research unit. PTSD is a mental health condition where the intense negative emotions, thoughts and memories caused by a traumatic event persist and interfere with someone’s daily life. The unit predicts there could be 230,000 new referrals for PTSD between 2020/21 and 2022/23 in England. The Royal College for Psychiatrists (RCP) has warned that frontline NHS staff are more at risk of developing the condition than army veterans. Professor Neil Greenberg, a PTSD specialist at the college and who is chair of its Occupational Psychiatry Special Interest Group, said: “It’s a common misunderstanding that only people in the armed forces can develop PTSD — anyone exposed to a traumatic event is at risk. However, clearly there are jobs, including working in many healthcare settings, where experiencing traumatic events is more common so the risk of developing PTSD is unfortunately much higher.” He added: “Early and effective support can reduce the likelihood of PTSD and those affected should be able to access evidence-based treatment in a timely manner.” The rise in new referrals of PTSD are also likely to be driven by the trauma faced by Covid-19 patients admitted to intensive care, the college added.
RCP news release. The Independent. Morning Star.


STUC targets sexual harassment in the workplace

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has kicked off a campaign to expose the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace. The STUC women’s committee has launched a survey calling for women in Scotland to share their experiences of harassment at work as part of the research. It is hoping to use the findings to understand how it can be tackled most effectively in Scotland. STUC women’s committee chair Fiona Steele said: “Sexual harassment at work might be illegal on paper, but in practice we know that sexual harassment at work is widespread and rife.” She added: “We need urgent action on tackling sexual harassment at work, ensuring that women feel able and supported to report incidents of sexual harassment and that there is the appropriate infrastructures to protect them when they do. We are urging all women across Scotland to support our survey. The views and experiences we gather will be in invaluable in helping to increase our lobbying, campaigning and industrial demands on employers and government.”

STUC news release. Morning Star.

Court workers back action on case management stress

Court workers have said overwhelming they would support strike action over the continued use of the ‘fundamentally flawed’ Common Platform (CP) digital case management system. Their union PCS has warned the system is leaving hundreds of court staff stressed out and ill (Risks 1024). A consultative ballot found 96.3 per cent of PCS members who voted said they would support strike action if HM Courts and Tribunals Services (HMCTS) fails to act reasonably and meet what the union described as ‘achievable demands’. The turnout was 57.2 per cent. PCS said it will now write to senior HMCTS managers, sharing the results and seeking an urgent meeting. The union is demanding suspension of the CP system, an organisational risk assessment in consultation with the union and suitable and sufficient resources to support individual risk assessments. PCS also wants HMCTS undertakes a stress survey of all Common Platform users to assess the level of risk.
PCS news release.

Court rules PM didn’t say Patel wasn’t a bully

The union for senior civil servants has lost its High Court challenge to Boris Johnson's decision to back Priti Patel over claims she bullied staff, but has said parts of the ruling still amounted to a ‘major victory’. Last year, the prime minister kept his home secretary in post despite a report accusing her of breaking the ministerial code (Risks 986). The FDA union challenged Mr Johnson's decision, arguing he had incorrectly interpreted the definition of bullying. However the court said it had not been “misinterpreted.” Nonetheless, the union indicated it had been in part vindicated as the court concluded that while Mr Johnson had decided Ms Patel had not breached the rules, he had not denied that her behaviour “could not be described as bullying.” The FDA said parts of the judgment represented a “major victory.” It welcomed the court's ruling that decisions taken on the ministerial code - the rules that govern ministers' behaviour - could be challenged in court. The FDA also said the court had in an “unexpected development... found that the prime minister had not acquitted the home secretary of bullying.” Speaking outside the court, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: “Whilst we are disappointed in the final judgment, there is a lot here that helps us protect civil servants from the conduct of ministers.” He added that the union was considering whether to appeal the judgment.
FDA judicial review webpage. BBC News Online. Union News.

New hope for a protection of shopworkers law

After years of opposition to a union campaign for a new law to protect shopworkers from violence, threats and abuse, the UK government on 2 December announced it will seek to address the issue with an amendment to the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill in the House of Lords. Retail union Usdaw said it is looking at the wording of the amendment and is keen to work with the government and members of the House of Lords to ensure that the draft provisions ‘deliver the protections retail workers deserve.’ Paddy Lillis, the union’s general secretary, said: “After years of campaigning we are pleased to have secured movement from the government and that they have finally accepted the need to legislate to protect shopworkers from violence at work. We are studying the amendment to the Policing Bill and are keen to engage with the government and politicians from all parties so that our members can be absolutely clear that the provisions in the Bill will deliver the protections they deserve.” He added: “Usdaw members working in retail have for too long been in the firing line of appalling behaviour from a significant minority of customers. Nine in ten shopworkers have faced abuse in the last year, with far too many also suffering threats and violence. A protection of workers law is long overdue and this could be a step in the right direction.”
Usdaw news release.

New union safety tool to protect journalists

Journalists’ union NUJ has launched an online interactive tool to help journalists’ deal with hostile environments and cyber threats. The union said the initiative is in response to journalism becoming “increasingly hazardous. Reporters die or are injured every year.” It added: “Media workers’ phones and computers are targeted with sophisticated spying software. Daily harassment of journalists is at an all-time high.” To help journalists minimise the risks they encounter – from conflict zones to the cyber battlefront – the NUJ said it was launching Storysmart, a suite of free online training modules, produced with financial support from the Google News Initiative. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “Journalism has always been dangerous, but hostile environments now extend to the streets of our own cities and cyber attacks can be mounted on the devices in all of our pockets. Storysmart is designed to raise journalists’ awareness of the challenges they face and provide tested methods to minimise risk and protect sources, however and wherever they are carrying out their work.” The Storysmart interactive modules divide risk into hostile environments, psychological trauma and wellbeing, cyber risks and dealing with injury. Designed to work on phones, tablets and laptops, each bite-sized modules takes 10 to 20 minutes.
NUJ news release and Storysmart interactive modules.

Tribute to storm hit transport workers

Transport union RMT has paid tribute to the workers who battled in appalling conditions to keep Britain moving after Storm Barra hit on 7 and 8 December. The union added the UK government and employers should halt plans for mass cuts it believes will threaten the livelihoods of those same staff and the safety-critical services they provide. Commenting on 8 December, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Our members have reported appalling conditions overnight as Storm Barra batters Britain and we pay tribute to all those who have been battling to keep transport services running. It would be a national disgrace if the heroic efforts of the workforce were rewarded with job cuts and attacks on pay, pensions and working conditions.” He added: “The safety of the railway, ports and ferries depends on having the staff numbers required to deliver in the toughest conditions. The government and the employers should recognise that and call off their threat of wholesale cuts to jobs, pay and conditions under the cloak of the pandemic.”
RMT news release.

Woolwich Ferry workers to strike over ‘misrule’

Commuters using the Woolwich Ferry face three months of travel disruption in the New Year as workers strike after ‘a year of misrule’ by Transport for London (TfL) bosses, Unite has said. Unite represents the 58 ferry workers who voted for strike action with a 90 per cent majority - and the 24-hour strikes will start on 3 January and are set to run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until the end of March. Unite’s concerns include the victimisation of two Unite reps, a failure to agree a new pay and reward scheme, the excessive use of agency staff and the failure to provide adequate health and safety training to new employees. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “The years of mismanagement, involving other operators, have been continued with TfL. However there is still an opportunity for TfL to retrieve the situation by entering into a constructive dialogue with Unite. Unite is pledged to defend our members’ jobs pay and conditions.”
Unite news release.

Builder jailed after deadly wall collapse

A builder has been jailed following an investigation into the death of a labourer on a site in Hampshire in 2019. Paramjit Singh, 48, was found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter following a two-week trial at Winchester Crown Court. He was sentenced to three years and three months on a gross negligence manslaughter charge. Singh was also sentenced to 20 months for criminal safety breaches, which he had admitted previously. Both sentences will run concurrently. The prosecution followed a joint investigation by the Hampshire Constabulary and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the death of 64-year-old Kulwant Singh Athwal. The court heard how officers were called to the site on 16 July 2019, following the discovery of a man’s body. Kulwant Singh Athwal had been working for Singh, who was previously the owner and manager of SAB Builders, as an ‘odd job man’ on the demolition of a house in Chilworth. They had been hired by the house owner to clear the garden and garage to make way for an extension. On 16 July 2019, the day after he had demolished three walls of the garage, Singh returned to the site just before 9am to demolish the final wall. Kulwant Singh Athwal was on the other side of the wall when it collapsed onto him. No exclusion zones had been established. The court also heard how Singh’s public liability and skills card expired after SAB Builders went bankrupt in 2015 and the company ceased trading. HSE inspector James Lucas said: “Paramjit Singh failed to prepare a written plan for the demolition of the building or any site-specific risk assessments. In this case, simple control measures and safe working practices, such as excluding people on site from danger zones with physical barriers, could have saved a life.”
Hampshire Constabulary news release. Construction Enquirer. BBC News Online. Daily Echo.

Farm worker fatally injured while mucking out

A farming partnership has been fined after a farm worker was fatally injured following an incident involving a telehandler within the pig barn. Weston Super Mare Magistrates’ Court heard how, on 17 October 2019, self-employed farm worker Andrew Denning was helping with the mucking-out and animal welfare checks inside a large pig shed. The 57-year-old was working in close proximity to a telehandler, fitted with a bucket, which was scraping the muck from the floor using repeated short manoeuvres. He was struck by telehandler and killed as it reversed. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that CM Stone failed to ensure a safe system of work. Staff working within the shed were not adequately segregated from the machine so far as was reasonably practicable. CM Stone pleaded guilty to a criminal health and safety breach and was fined £53,000 and ordered to pay costs of £8,000. HSE inspector William Powell commented: “The system of work used at this farm was not safe. Simple measures to keep pedestrians and large farm vehicles properly separated could have prevented Mr Denning’s death.”
HSE news release.


South Africa: Union hails vaccination campaign success

A South African garment union has achieved remarkable success in ensuring its members receive the Covid vaccine. The Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) has conducted “tireless awareness and educational campaigns for workers to take the jab and adhere to Covid-19 protocols,” the global union IndustriALL said. To promote worker vaccinations, the IndustriALL affiliate entered into a strategic agreement with employers to facilitate vaccination through the union’s primary health care clinics. Now a report from the Covid-19 Vaccination Rollout Campaign Framework Agreement the union signed with employers has found: “Out of a sample of 33,906 persons registered with the clothing industry's health care clinics, a total of 25,107 (or 74 per cent) have now been vaccinated.” The vaccination rate is more than double the national average of 35 per cent. SACTWU said the report reveals that out of 320 hospital admissions of garment workers, 295 (or 92 per cent) were unvaccinated, 21 (or 7 per cent) partially vaccinated and 4 (or 1 per cent) fully vaccinated. Of the 56 Covid-19-related deaths recorded among the garment workers, 49 (or 88 per cent) were among the unvaccinated, 7 (or 13 per cent) partially vaccinated and none among the fully vaccinated, the report said. SACTWU general secretary Andre Kriel commented: “We are pleased with this progress, which brings us within reach of the 80 per cent vaccination rate which the framework agreement sets as a target for our industry. We will continue to encourage all our members, in the sectors that we are organised, to get vaccinated.”
IndustriALL news release.


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