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



Real sick pay falling as Omicron strikes

The UK now has the lowest statutory sick pay in real terms in almost two decades, according to a new analysis by the TUC. The union body said the last time real statutory sick pay (SSP) was lower was March 2003 – almost nineteen years ago. It is already worth £3 per week less in real terms now than it was at start of the pandemic in February 2020, the TUC said, due to increases in the already-low benefit failing to keep pace with the cost of living. The union body is calling on ministers to deliver decent sick pay for all – which it says is a “vital public health tool” in the fight against the virus. It wants the UK government to extend statutory sick pay protection to every worker by removing the lower earnings limit and to increase statutory sick pay to at least the value of the real Living Wage – £346 per week, compared to the current figure of under £100 a week. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “With the cost of living ticking up, statutory sick pay is worth its lowest in almost two decades – leaving millions of workers who fall sick struggling to pay the bills and get by. It’s a monumental failure that nearly two years into the pandemic, this vital public health tool has been ignored time and time again by the government.” She added: “As the Omicron variant rages and coronavirus cases sweep across the country, it’s time ministers came to their senses and finally delivered decent sick pay for all. That means statutory sick pay you can live on and making sure everyone has access to it.”
TUC news release.

Plan for work absences of up to 25 per cent

Boris Johnson has called on ministers to draw up ​“robust contingency plans” to tackle the coronavirus-related staff absences threatening to disrupt UK businesses and supply chains over the coming weeks. With rising case numbers exacerbating the staff shortages already plaguing many sectors, public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against worst-case scenarios of 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 25 per cent workforce absence rates. Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, is chairing regular meetings with ministers to assess how workforces, supply chains and schools are affected as the omicron Covid variant sweeps across the country. The news comes after the Daily Telegraph reported that the government’s work-from-home guidance in England could remain in place for most of January. Barclay said: “As people return to work following the Christmas break, the high transmissibility levels of omicron mean business and public services will face disruption in the coming weeks, particularly from higher than normal staff absence. We have been working through the Christmas period to prepare where possible for this, with all departments liaising closely with public and private sector leaders who are best placed to operationally manage their workforces.” Criticising the prime minister, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said he had “dithered and delayed”, adding: “Boris Johnson should have instructed his ministers to start planning weeks ago, but instead he went missing for days on end. With record Covid infection numbers, the prime minister must immediately get a grip on workforce pressures, keep essential services moving, keep schools open and keep people safe.”
BBC News Online. The Guardian. The Telegraph. Evening Standard.


Give workers priority access to lateral flow tests

The TUC has warned that supply problems with lateral flow test (LFT) kits are putting working people at risk. Commenting ahead of the xmas break, the union body warned vital services were under threat due to outbreaks that could be contained if tests were readily available. The TUC said workers who cannot work from home should have priority access to LFT kits until supply problems are resolved. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “With omicron cases rising rapidly, it is even more important that people test regularly if they cannot work at home and are in contact with others. But supply problems with lateral flow tests are putting workers at risk. And it increases the danger of omicron outbreaks in workplaces shutting down vital services.” She added: “The government must give priority access to test kits for anyone who is required to work outside the home, to help protect workers and the community.” Commenting on 1 January 2022, Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge, a leading statistician who advises the government, said the UK's record high daily Covid-19 total could be closer to 500,000 due to the testing system being overstretched and reinfections not being counted in the government data. He told the BBC: “This is a huge, unprecedented wave of infection and very daunting.” A day earlier, US experts Michael T Osterholm of the University of Minnesota and Ezekiel J Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania warned in the Washington Post that the “current omicron surge represents one of the greatest public health challenges not only of the pandemic but also of our lifetime.”
TUC news release and TUC blog. Washington Post.

TUC stresses ‘ventilation, ventilation, ventilation’

How do we keep ourselves safe from Covid transmission indoors? Ventilation is one of the most important factors, the TUC’s work safety lead Shelly Asquith has said. She explained that because transmission of the coronavirus is largely airborne, “if you’ve entered a room where someone who is infectious but not showing symptoms has been, even if they have already left, you might still breathe in a Covid-19 aerosol. A combination of concentration, airflow, humidity and temperature, all contribute to whether the aerosol load will be infectious.” In online advice, she said this means ventilation, where we make sure the air is renewed and refreshed regularly, is an incredibly important method for reducing Covid transmission. “Every workplace risk assessment should include aerosol transmission, and outline what steps are being taken to improve ventilation where necessary,” the advice notes. But it warns: “Despite ventilation being one of the most effective ways to mitigate risk, union safety reps have told the TUC that it’s the one employers are least likely to be paying attention to. In some cases, we need to force ventilation onto the agenda through union education and action.” The advice says steps to improve ventilation could include “adopting a union position and demands to the employer, based on the situation in your workplace and the steps required to bring ventilation to a safe level.” Safety reps should consider inspections using carbon dioxide monitors to get an indication of the effectiveness of indoor ventilation. Using “a union improvement notice, or emergency advice including removing oneself from the hazardous environment if serious risk presents” should also be considered, along with “holding union member-wide meetings on the subject of ventilation, explaining the problem to members, and deciding on next steps including collective action to force changes to keep workers safe, and escalating matters through formal dispute procedures.”
TUC blog.

PCS pressure forces DWP jobcentre concessions

Pressure by the civil service union PCS has forced concessions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which had been increasing pressure for more Jobcentre staff to return to face-to-face work. The union had written to the work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey demanded that Jobcentres should be closed to all but the most vulnerable claimants. Then, at a 16 December 2021 meeting with the DWP executive team, the union said “the department agreed to issue communications to Jobcentre staff that would reduce footfall in Jobcentres.” Work coaches based in Jobcentres are being instructed to contact customers who are booked in to check if the customer is comfortable coming into the office and feels safe to do so. As an alternative they will be offered a telephone interview. The union, which is seeking further limitations on face-to-face work, said: “PCS has been clear throughout the pandemic that we do not accept that Jobcentres are Covid secure. We agree that face-to-face interviews may be the best way for some claimants, but not all, and certainly not at a time when society is facing an escalation of the public health crisis.” A 16 December online union meeting was attended by over 1,250 PCS members with just 24 hours’ notice, the union said. “Jobcentre members demonstrated their unity in the face of the DWP’s disregard for their safety. Ninety-five per cent of members at the meeting said that they would be prepared to take strike action over this issue,” PCS noted. “We will continue to use all means to get better working conditions, less pressure of work and better safety for members in Jobcentres including considering industrial action.”
PCS news release.

Masks back in English secondary schools

Face masks are to be worn in secondary classrooms in England's schools to reduce the spread of the omicron variant, the government has announced. The temporary reintroduction of face coverings aims to address concerns about schools remaining open for face-to-face learning in the spring term. Meanwhile, six school staff unions have issued a demand for urgent action to limit the spread of the virus. They warned national exams would be put at risk without further measures. They also called for air-cleaning units, financial support for absence cover, help with on-site testing and a relaxation of the Ofsted inspection regime. Until now, England was the only one of the four UK nations where face masks were not recommended for pupils in classrooms. Teachers will not have to wear them under the new guidelines. Some individual schools and local authorities in England had already required masks in classrooms. Announcing the change a few days before schools were set to reopen, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said face coverings would be required until 26 January. “The prime minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will bolster our support to schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption.” The government also announced it would be making 7,000 air cleaning units available to early years settings, schools and colleges. There are more than 24,400 schools in England, according to the latest government figures. Teaching unions said more comprehensive measures are required, with NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted noting “more air purifiers is something, but it is completely inadequate for what should be a basic human right, the provision of clean air in every classroom in every educational setting.”
NEU news release. NASUWT news release. BBC News Online.

School unions call for more government support

Six trade unions representing the majority of education staff have issued a joint statement prior to the return of schools and colleges for the spring term, calling for greater government support for Covid safe education. The statement, from education unions ASCL, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU and UNISON, notes: “As trade unions representing the vast majority of education staff, we wish to emphasise that teachers, leaders and support staff desperately want to be able to conduct face-to-face teaching for all children and young people on a consistent basis and without further interruption caused by the pandemic.” It added, though, that the last term saw education staff “more likely than other workers to test positive”, leading to disruption of education. To avoid this, the union statement said it is essential “the government takes immediate and urgent steps to mitigate the risk of Covid transmission and that it provides more support to minimise disruption in schools and colleges.” The statement calls for government-funded air cleaning units for every school and college classroom that needs these devices and more resources for schools if on-site Covid testing is again required. There should be improved financial support to schools and colleges to meet the costs of supply staff to cover for Covid-related absence, it adds. The statement concludes: “As a new year begins, we urge the government to work more collaboratively and constructively with education workforce representatives to keep schools and colleges open. By working side by side, we can remove unnecessary burdens and find solutions with government in the interests of all children and young people.”
NASUWT news release and news release on more government ambition needed. NEU news release and news release on higher rates of Covid-19 in education workers.
ONS: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey, characteristics of people testing positive for COVID-19, UK: 16 December 2021

Measures ‘should have been introduced weeks ago’

The education secretary’s announcement a couple of days before the new term of provision of a limited number of air filtration systems for schools and for masks to be worn in secondary classrooms is too little, too late, UNISON has indicated. UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards commented: “An increase in the use of face coverings and better ventilation are welcome but should have been in place before Christmas to have slowed the infection in schools. Providing 7,000 filters is a helpful step. But with over 20,000 schools – many with dozens of classrooms – this will barely scratch the surface.” He added: “These new measures also don’t address the need for extra funding to meet additional costs to schools and colleges, such as paying for agency cover when staff are sick or isolating. Nor do they tackle the additional workload for those who’re able to work, or ensure staff working for private contractors are given full sick pay when they need to isolate.” Richards concluded: “Unions have been calling for these changes for months. But just like last year, changes announced at the last minute leave little time to prepare for the new term.”
UNISON news release. The Guardian.

Virus leaves London with fire engine shortages

In the last week in 2021, London had over a third of its fire engines unavailable as omicron hits staffing numbers, London Fire Brigade data has revealed. Shortages reached 50 fire engines during the day shift on 25 December, and reached 42 for the day shift on Christmas Eve. There are 142 fire engines in the capital. Firefighters’ union FBU said the data, the 24 to 27 December, showed shortages were constantly high across this period, with a majority of shifts seeing shortages of at least 40 fire engines. It said the shortages resulted from the impact of omicron in the capital. Figures for 27 December revealed that Covid had left 740 operational firefighters either having tested positive or having to self-isolate, meaning that over 15 per cent of the operational firefighter workforce was unavailable for work. FBU London regional secretary Jon Lambe said: “Omicron is directly affecting the level of fire and rescue cover Londoners receive: over a third of fire engines being unavailable is a huge shortage that could have serious impacts. However, omicron should not be having an effect on this scale – the reason it is that London Fire Brigade has been left in a terrible state by years of government cuts, with almost one in five of London firefighters having been cut since 2010.” He added: “As a union we are highlighting this because it’s simply not right and it’s not safe.”
FBU news release.

Safety concerns as theatres face Covid pressures

As dramatic increases in Covid-19 cases due to the omicron variant puts pressure on UK theatres, entertainment union Bectu has issued guidance on Covid health and safety concerns in the workplace. Ahead of the xmas break, the union said it had received large numbers of queries, predominantly from workers in London’s West End, regarding Covid health and safety concerns. Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said: “We are receiving worrying reports of safety concerns in theatres, including out of date risk assessments and people being asked to continue working while displaying Covid symptoms. Our members are working incredibly hard in extremely difficult circumstances and their health and safety at work is paramount. We recognise these are challenging times but employers must ensure no worker’s health and safety is compromised while carrying out their jobs.” The Bectu leader added: “The government must also step up and work with us to support the creative industries and, if the need should arise, bring in sector specific furlough to ensure self-employed and freelance workers are supported. We need to give business stability and the support for the creative industries to be open and trading safely, where possible. The omicron variant and audience anxiety is hitting the sector hard. We need strong leadership to help safeguard the industry and protect jobs and worker safety through this latest phase of the crisis.”
Bectu news release and health and safety guidance.

Welcome for Wales work from home rule

Wales TUC has welcomed the reintroduction of the ‘work from home’ regulation in the country and a focus on employer compliance with the rules. Commenting on the 20 December 2021 measures, the union body said it was “relieved to hear the first minister clarify that the focus of this, including any enforcement activity, will be on employers permitting and enabling home working, and that employers who do not comply are at risk of a £1,000 fine.” Wales TUC was responding to concerns that under the new rules individual employees could face fines if they went in to work. The union body said it was “opposed to the idea that the potential fine on workers would help them.” It noted: “This is based on the incorrect premise that an individual worker is in a position to challenge their boss if they are not complying with the ‘work from home’ regulations,” adding “we have again called on Welsh government to remove the part of the regulations which permits enforcement officers to issue a £60 fine to individuals in relation to this.” Wales TUC said where workers are unable to work from home, “your employer must conduct a Covid risk assessment of your workplace and implement the necessary steps which will keep you and your colleagues safe. As we move into Alert Level 2, all employers are under a legal duty to revisit these risk assessments and strengthen mitigations in line with Welsh government’s guidance.” Kelly Andrews, GMB senior organiser, expressed concern at any provision in the law to fine workers. “We think this strikes the wrong chord,” she said. “We have major worries that this could lead to bad employers pressuring their workers to work away from home without a paper trail and place any financial risk on them.”
Wales TUC news releases on possible fines on workers and work from home. GMB news release. Wales Online.

Covid fears worker fails in discrimination tribunal

A woman who refused to go into work because she had “a genuine fear” she could catch Covid and infect her high risk partner has lost a discrimination claim over lost wages. A Manchester tribunal ruled she was not protected by the Equality Act after refusing to return to her workplace in June 2020. Neither the woman nor her employer was named in the judgment. In a statement given to the tribunal, the worker said her employer had refused to pay her and she had suffered financial detriment as a result. She said: “I claim this was discrimination on the grounds of this belief in regard to coronavirus and the danger from it to public health. This was at the time of the start of the second wave of Covid-19 and the huge increase in cases of the virus throughout the country.” In his ruling, employment judge Mark Leach said he accepted the woman had a genuine fear but he did not believe it met the criteria for a “philosophical belief” that would be protected under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010. He said “a fear of physical harm and views about how best to reduce or avoid a risk of physical harm is not a belief for the purposes of section 10.” He added: “Fears about the harm being caused by Covid-19 are weighty and substantial. They are certainly not minor or trivial. They are about also aspects of human life and behaviour.”
The Guardian.

Health staff ‘wrung dry’ by pandemic pressures

More than two thirds (69 per cent) of health staff say they’ve experienced burnout during the pandemic, and three in five (62 per cent) feel overwhelmed after long, intense shifts, according to a UNISON survey. The survey findings – published on 23 December 2021 and based on responses from more than 10,000 health employees in Wales, England and Northern Ireland – show half (51 per cent) are covering more shifts because of staff shortages. This situation is likely to worsen as NHS workers fall ill from omicron and delta variants over the coming weeks, said UNISON. The survey found four in ten (40 per cent) health workers have had to take time off work for mental health reasons during the pandemic. A quarter (26 per cent) sought help through their employer, but four in ten (46 per cent) didn’t feel they got the help they needed. UNISON head of health Sara Gorton commented: “Staff have been wrung dry by pandemic pressures. Now they’re going through another wave as omicron surges.” She added: “Overwhelmed and exhausted staff are suffering panic attacks and feeling anxious they’ll catch Covid again. It’s all taking a toll. The NHS was already more than 100,000 staff short before coronavirus. The pandemic has upped the strain on health employees, and many have had enough. Poor planning by the government has made a bad situation much worse.” The UNISON officer concluded: “The prime minister must minimise the staffing crisis and invest to protect the NHS. An inflation-busting wage rise paid early in the new year would be a good start. This might just be enough to persuade experienced staff to stay.”
UNISON news release.


Enforcement collapses as 1.7m plus hurt by work

New Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics confirm shockingly high rates of work-related ill-health accompanied by a collapse of enforcement action. New statistics for 2020/21, from which HSE excluded work-related Covid infections, show 1.7 million workers suffering from a work-related illness, around half of which was down to stress, depression or anxiety. The year saw a catastrophic fall in HSE enforcement activity to a record low, with just 185 cases prosecuted and only 2,929 enforcement notices issued. In 2009/10, when HSE recorded 1.3m cases of work-related ill-health, the regulator recorded 735 convictions – which was a record low at the time. It means since the Conservatives came to power, the number of workers harmed by their jobs each year has increased by 30 per cent, but convictions have fallen by 75 per cent. Commenting on the new statistics, HSE chief executive Sarah Albon said: “HSE continues to act as a proportionate and enabling regulator taking the most appropriate actions to achieve the best and quickest result. However, where employers fall short of expected standards, HSE will not hesitate to hold those responsible to account.” Separate HSE statistics, which HSE excluded from the annual toll, show over 32,000 cases of work-related Covid were reported in 2020/21, with 383 deaths.
HSE news release and statistics webpage. Workplace fatal injuries in Great Britain 2021, webpage and full updated December 2021 report. Reported work-related Covid-19 cases and HSE decision to exclude Covid from the statistics. HSE 2009/10 statistics.

HSE downplaying workplace stress catastrophe 

As latest official figures confirm work-related stress cases in the last two years have hit an all-time high, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been accused of downplaying the extent of the harm caused by Britain’s top workplace health problem. The charge comes in the new issue of the trade union safety journal Hazards and follows the November 2021 launch of HSE’s Working Minds campaign, where the regulator’s executive Sarah Albon warned: “No worker should suffer in silence and if we don’t act now to improve workers’ mental health, this could evolve into a health and safety crisis.” As work-related stress, anxiety or depression cases for the second consecutive year topped 820,000, Hazards said this was “some understatement” from HSE, noting: “The last two years, 2019-2021, mark a high after a year-on-year increase since 2014/15, when HSE’s estimate was around 500,000 workers affected – indicating a shocking increase of around 60 per cent, or over 300,000 workers, in just six years. These HSE statistics expose a situation that has evolved way beyond a crisis. It is an out of control catastrophe.” The article is critical of HSE’s blanket failure to hold stress-inducing negligent employers to account. “There is no mention of HSE’s primary, statutory role – to inspect and enforce safety at work. It is this hands-off strategy that the TUC has warned repeatedly is allowing the workplace stress crisis to escalate,” it notes. “Instead, the headline on HSE’s 16 November 2021 news release announcing the Working Minds campaign said it will just ‘encourage employers to promote good mental health in work’.” The Hazards article concludes: “Without empowerment of workers backed up with enforcement by HSE, workers will not be able to assert the control over their work that is considered central to HSE’s stress management standards. HSE is instead looking on as work spirals out of control.”
Tear up: HSE must admit there is a stress catastrophe under its nose and act, Hazards, number 156, December 2021. HSE Working Minds campaign.
Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, HSE, 16 December 2021.

Over 1,000 serious injuries at Amazon sites

‘Shameful’ figures reveal more than a thousand serious injuries at Amazon sites have been reported to health and safety authorities since 2016, a GMB investigation has found.  The union said ‘disturbingly’ the number of injuries reported to health and safety bodies is rapidly increasing, with 294 reported in the financial year 2020/21 – up from 231 the year before, or an increase of 27 per cent. This compared to 139 reports in 2016/17. The true figure could be much higher, GMB said, with not all local authorities responding to its freedom of information enquiries. Local authority inspection reports obtained by GMB reveal multiple areas of concern, including; injuries to workers, unsafe working conditions, Covid-19 concerns, and poor health and safety record keeping or a lack of compliance with inspectors. Separate new figures obtained by the union show that more than a thousand ambulance callouts were also made over the same period – and that callouts rose by 56 per cent during the pandemic, between 2019/20 and 2020/21. GMB national officer Mick Rix said: “More than a thousand serious injuries at Amazon sites is a shameful statistic and one that the company must address urgently – and the true picture is probably worse. GMB investigations have now built up years’ worth of evidence and there can be no denying Amazon warehouse are currently dangerous, dehumanising places to work.” He added: “We will be writing to the Health and Safety Executive to set out our findings - it is time for a proper external audit and investigation of working conditions at this highly profitable company.  It’s time Amazon stopped burying its head in the sand, met with GMB and worked out how to make Amazon a great, safe place to work.” 
GMB news release.

Amazon’s high churn, high pace work model slammed

Amazon’s high turnover, high paced work model is hurting us all, a new report has warned. ‘Fast and furious’, publishing in the union safety journal Hazards, noted: “Excessive pace of work is becoming the norm – driven by performance management systems, reward systems and piece work, job insecurity and old fashioned management because-I-say-so. But Artificial Intelligence (AI) has ratcheted up the pressure several notches. ‘Intensification of work’ is the desired anxiety-inducing consequence, and workplace health and safety law is not keeping up.” Hazards said production practices at Amazon “are proving a gamechanger across the economy. You can forget the boardroom cliche ‘our workers are our biggest asset’. In July 2021 internal Amazon documents emerged revealing executives at the world’s largest retailer ‘closely track’ and set goals for a metric called the ‘unregretted attrition rate’ – the percentage of workers the company is happy to see leave every year.” The Hazards report points out that unions are using new approaches to address the problem. “In the absence of legal protections, unions have harnessed technology to expose unreasonable demands at work,” it notes, pointing to the WeClock self-tracking app, produced with the global union UNI. It “describes itself as a ‘workplace reality check’ that allows a worker to collect data about their working life to challenge unrealistic demands, the ‘constant on’ culture and a lack of time off and breaks.”  A new TUC guide notes unions have a key role to play in “protecting workers against the risks associated with AI at work.”
Fast and furious: Amazon’s high churn, high pace work template hurts us all, Hazards, number 156, December 2021. Fast and furious pin up at work poster.
When AI is the boss: An introduction for union reps, TUC, December 2021.

Scottish teachers feeling the stress

The health and wellbeing of Scotland’s teachers is being put at risk by their working conditions, a survey by EIS has found. The Scottish teaching union said responses to its research confirm that 70 per cent of teachers report that they experience stress as a result of their current working environment either ‘frequently’ or ‘all of the time’. The EIS report is based on the views of more than 16,000 teachers across Scotland who responded to an online survey in November 2021. The union found 70 per cent of teachers feel stressed in their job either frequently (48 per cent) or all of the time (22 per cent). Only 11 per cent of teachers have not needed to seek help for stress at work. Half of all teachers (50 per cent) describe their level of wellbeing at work as ‘very poor’ (13 per cent) or ‘poor’ (37 per cent). EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said the findings “make for very worrying reading. Teachers have a demanding job which, coupled with the additional strains of teaching during the pandemic, is placing severe stress on our members right across Scotland. The fact that 7 out 10 teachers feel stressed either frequently or all of the time at work is a huge cause for concern.” He added: “It is also evident that adequate support for teachers suffering from stress simply isn’t there, with the vast majority of teachers seeking to manage this without the support of their employer.” The survey also found 88 per cent of teachers indicated that their workload has increased during the pandemic.
EIS news release and workload findings.

HSE acknowledges work-related suicide risks

While new Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on suicide prevention continues to emphasise “suicides in the workplace are not RIDDOR reportable” (Risks 1017), it does break new ground in recognising work-related causes and the duty on employers to address them. The new HSE suicide prevention webpage notes: “Employers have a duty of care to workers and to ensuring their health, safety and welfare. HSE promotes action that prevents or tackles any risks to worker’s physical and mental health, for example due to work-related stress.” It adds: “These risks can lead to physical and/or mental ill health and, potentially, suicidal ideation, intent and behaviour. As an employer, there are things you can do to reduce the risk of work contributing to the causes of suicide.” Advising employers to “manage the risk”, the webpage says: “Work-related factors may contribute to feelings of humiliation or isolation. An issue or combination of issues such as job insecurity, discrimination, work stressors and bullying may play their part in people becoming suicidal.” It continues: “Tackle potential mental health triggers such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. Consider the impact of change, redundancies and job security. Consider things happening at work that are likely to be additionally stressful for workers, for example: change, no matter how small; reorganisation, especially if this may lead to job losses; disciplinary action.”
HSE guidance on suicide prevention, 2021. Is HSE edging closer to acting on suicide?, Hazards, number 156, December 2021. More on work-related suicide.
ACTION! Tell the HSE to recognise, record and take action to prevent work-related suicides.

Sexual violence ‘endemic’ on campuses

Sexual violence is endemic in the UK's university and college workplaces and employers must do more to tackle it, the union UCU has said. A new report from the union found 1 in 10 university and college staff surveyed had directly experienced workplace sexual violence in the past five years, whilst around a quarter of staff knew a staff member who had experienced sexual violence at their college or university workplace. The findings come in a report from the union’s sexual violence task group, which surveyed nearly 4,000 university and college staff. UCU said universities, colleges and the union must now work together using the report's findings and recommendations to properly tackle the issue of sexual violence in the sector. UCU general secretary Jo Grady commented: “The report's findings reveal shocking levels of institutional failure and reflect a culture in which protecting the reputation of a university or college comes before delivering justice for survivors.” She concluded: “This report is a gift to our sector and it must not be squandered. It is now time for the union and university and college employers to work together to eradicate sexual violence on campus.”
UCU news release.

Firefighters urged to protect themselves from toxics

Firefighters have been urged by their union to protect themselves from toxic fire contaminants. The FBU said a study found rates of cancer in firefighters were more than four times higher than in the general public. The research by the University of Central Lancashire involved 10,000 serving firefighters. FBU’s response – a new DECON training and guidance programme - encourages firefighters to take actions before, during and after every fire incident to help reduce their own, their co-workers’ and their families’ exposure to fire contaminants. Firefighters are also being encouraged to fill in a University of Central Lancashire firefighter cancer and disease registry. FBU national officer Riccardo la Torre said: “In the past, firefighters have been let down by a lack of information and a lax safety culture being allowed to prevail. DECON guidance and training helps firefighters protect themselves through simple actions like better cleaning of gear and making sure to always wear breathing apparatus when it’s needed, never putting it on too late.” He added: “We would urge every firefighter to have a look at the guidance and contact their local Fire Brigades Union representatives about the training. The University of Central Lancashire Firefighter Cancer and Disease Registry will also help save firefighter lives by pushing forward research in this area, so it’s vital that firefighters play their part here too and fill it in.”
FBU news release and DECON training and guidance. Firefighter Cancer and Disease Registry.

Get lunch in McDonald’s, ambulance workers told

Ambulance workers have expressed fury after an ambulance trust told them to take their lunch breaks in the nearest McDonald’s. In December 2021, North East Ambulance Trust (NEAS) announced its paramedics will - from January - be told to take lunch breaks at hospitals or their nearest ambulance station, rather than returning to base, their union GMB said. Workers were also told to head to their nearest McDonald’s or to eat in their ambulance in a bid to improve response times. GMB says ambulance workers heading to their local fast food restaurant is a Covid risk and unprofessional – and the trust must address chronic understaffing and a demoralised workforce rather than dictating where they eat. Urging the trust to reconsider, GMB organiser Mickey Hunt said: “This announcement is yet another kick in the teeth. Ambulance crews are waiting hours and hours to hand over patients over to hospitals. Telling them to go and eat in McDonald’s won’t solve that. It’s deeply unprofessional and a Covid risk.” He added: “This new policy is being implemented without fully consulting workers and is potentially detrimental to our members, with regards to health and safety, infection and prevention control, mental health and physical wellbeing. We urge the trust to reconsider.”
GMB news release.


Long Covid: a TUC guide for supporting members

The TUC says union reps have a vital role in making sure employers properly protect workers with long Covid, and in prevent new long lasting inequalities. To help reps, the union body has produced an interactive guide, which it says will: Explain what long Covid is; describe how it affects working people; and detail how you as a workplace rep can support members and review employer policies. This training taked approximately 25 minutes to complete. 
Long Covid: a guide for supporting our members, TUC – use the interactive guide.


Global: WHO concedes respirators are necessary

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has finally conceded higher protection respirators are necessary to protect workers from Covid-19 in a wide range of health and care workplace settings. The UN agency had previously rejected or played down the risk of airborne transmission of the virus responsible for Covid-19, limiting the respirators recommendation to just medical ‘aerosol generating procedures’. Other workers were told to use surgical masks, which offer far more limited protection that the FFP3 and FFP3 respirators. The new recommendations take WHO closer to the long-time union position that all frontline staff should have access to properly fitted respirators (Risks 980). In its 22 December 2021 interim update, WHO notes: “Respirators should be worn in the following situations: in care settings where ventilation is known to be poor or cannot be assessed or the ventilation system is not properly maintained based on health workers’ values and preferences and on their perception of what offers the highest protection possible to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection. Note: this recommendation applies to any setting where care is provided to patients with suspected or confirmed Covid-19, including home care, long-term care facilities and community care settings.” In July 2021, the national Hazards Campaign slammed the UK Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) failure to recommend the more protective FFP3 and FFP2 respirators rather than general purpose surgical masks (Risks 1007). The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) said last year it had been campaigning since March 2020 for provision of the more protective respirators for all NHS frontline staff (Risks 983).
WHO recommendations on mask use by health workers, in light of the Omicron variant of concern: WHO interim guidelines, 22 December 2021.

USA: Health care worker protections removed

The Biden administration “has just thrown its most important assets in the fight against Covid-19 under the bus”, a top safety official from the Obama administration has warned. Jordan Barab, who was deputy director at the US safety regulator OSHA, was commenting after the 27 December 2021 OSHA announcement “that it is withdrawing the non-recordkeeping portions of the healthcare ETS.”  That ETS, or Emergency Temporary Standard, was issued by OSHA last June to protect healthcare workers from contracting Covid-19. Writing in his Confined Space blog, Barab said: “This decision to pull the rug out from underneath the nation’s millions of nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 could not have come at a worse time. Hospitals, filled with mostly unvaccinated people, are being overrun with the omicron variant while healthcare workers - tired of the never-ending work and death - are burning out and quitting. Worse, they are getting sick and dying at increasing rates.” He added that “tragically” the government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “has just reported that Covid-19 infections among nursing home employees have doubled over the past few weeks, while Covid-19 deaths among nursing home employees have quadrupled… Now, with the healthcare emergency standard no longer in place, how many more nursing home workers and healthcare workers will become infected on the job and die every day?”
OSHA statement. Confined Space.

USA: Essential workers need mandatory protections

US unions have demanded urgent and mandatory protections for health care and other frontline workers. National union federation AFL-CIO and unions representing workers in education, health care, care homes, public service, food and retail and wider industry issued the strongly worded statement after national safety regulator OSHA removed a Covid-19 emergency temporary standard (ETS) for health care workers. “First and foremost, we strongly disagree with the Biden administration’s decision to discontinue the enforceable OSHA ETS for health care workers. With the omicron variant surging and no permanent standard in place, our frontline heroes are in grave danger of Covid-19 infection. Workplace Covid-19 outbreaks are exploding; recent data show the number of infections doubled and deaths nearly quadrupled among nursing home workers alone,” the statement said. It concluded: “Our message to every employer is this: While vaccines and boosters help prevent serious disease and death, Covid-19 is life-threatening, especially to health care and medical workers, and all proven protective measures must remain in place. The administration’s pursuit of a broader infectious disease standard, something we’ve championed for years, will empower us to fight the next pandemic. But to protect workers now, we need to build on the emergency Covid-19 standard by making it permanent, not scrapping it altogether.”
AFL-CIO news releases on the ETS removal and the high work-related death rates in essential workers.

Myanmar: Junta profits as workers die in jade mines

The death of at least six jade miners in a landslide in Hpakant, Myanmar on 22 December 2021 highlights the urgent need to curb unsafe mining practices and protect miners’ lives, the global union IndustriALL has said. The landslide occurred amid heavy rainfalls in the monsoon season. Reports say 70 jade miners were swept into a large mining pond. In 2020, more than 160 jade miners were killed in another landslide in Hpakant. IndustriALL said studies had established that the landslides were mainly caused by unsafe mining practices implemented by mining companies. It points to a report by Global Witness that concluded suspension of jade mining licences in 2016 had failed to address main issues including the domination of military-linked companies in the industry, multi-level corruption and armed conflicts in the region. The June 2021 Global Witness report also exposed the financial flow from the jade mine industry to the Myanmar junta. Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL assistant general secretary, said the “vicious cycle” of unsafe mining cannot be ended “under the military regime that benefits from the current unsafe practices.” He added: “It is crucial for a democratically-elected government to demilitarise the jade mine industry, implement a sound industry safety standard and eliminate corruption at the union, state and regional level.” According to IndustriALL, the artisanal jade pickers, the common victims of the mine landslides, search for jade among quarry tailings day and night. It said the number of jade pickers, mostly migrants from other states, has doubled in the last five years.
IndustriALL news release. Global Witness news release and June 2021 report. France 24. The Guardian.


TUC Hazards at Work 6th Edition

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