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



Decent sick pay a ‘gaping hole’ in Covid strategy

The lack of decent sick pay has been a “gaping hole” in the government's Covid strategy, the TUC has said. The union body was commenting on a Resolution Foundation report on the government's failure to support workers to self-isolate with decent sick pay. The report, Time Out, found statutory sick pay (SSP) is too low, with millions not eligible, and calls for a more effective, generous and easy to deliver support regime to be put in place. It added low levels of access to decent sick pay were observed in areas with high Covid rates. The foundation’s Maja Gustafsson said: “Getting people to self-isolate at home is one of the important tools we have in combatting Covid-19. But asking workers to do that often involves a major financial sacrifice – and the UK’s sick pay regime has been woefully inadequate in providing the necessary support. Many more Covid infections will have taken place as a result.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “The lack of decent sick pay has been a gaping hole in the government's Covid strategy. Asking workers to self-isolate on £96 a week is not viable – especially when many don’t have savings to fall back on.” She warned: “This problem needs fixing urgently. Until people are given sick pay they can survive on they will be forced to choose between following the health advice and paying their bills. Nobody should be plunged into financial hardship for doing the right thing. Sick pay should be raised to at least the rate of the real living wage and everyone should be entitled to it. It’s not right that two million workers are excluded from it because they do not earn enough.” TUC polling published in September 2020 revealed that more than 4 in 10 workers would be plunged into financial hardship if forced to self-isolate for two weeks on SSP (Risks 975).    
Resolution Foundation news release and report, Time out, Reforming Statutory Sick Pay to support the Covid-19 recovery phase, 8 December 2020. Sick pay and debt, TUC, 9 September 2020.

Bakkavor agrees full absence pay after Covid deaths

Workers at a Bakkavor factory have claimed a massive victory after the major fresh food supplier agreed full pay for staff off work because of a Covid outbreak. The company also agreed a roll out of mass testing at the Tilmanstone salads site. The food supply multinational, which supplies major retailers including Marks and Spencer, has also carried out a deep clean of the factory. The move comes after confirmation of two Covid-related deaths of workers from the Tilmanstone factory in recent days. GMB said cases in an outbreak at the factory had ‘rocketed’ from around 35 in the third week of November to 99 as of 3 December. Frank Macklin, GMB regional organiser, said: “These changes will help save lives and go a long way to making Tilmanstone Salads factory as safe a place as possible to work in during this current crisis. Full pay for staff who test positive, now means that our members can sleep easy at night, safe in the knowledge that if they do test positive their wage is secure and they won’t have to worry about putting bread on the table.” He added: “After a tragic few weeks we’ll be working with Bakkavor to roll out these measures which we hope will lead to a significant drop in Covid cases.” Bakkavor changed tack after GMB lodged a formal collective grievance on behalf of its members at the plant, with the GMB officer stating “we believe the health and safety of our members has been seriously compromised at the factory.” The company has faced criticism for its safety record previously and has been prosecuted twice in the last three years for criminal safety offences following two workplace deaths in separate incidents (Risks 855).
GMB news release and news release on the second Bakkavor death and the earlier death. BBC News Online.

Ministers must act after damning Covid report

The UK government’s ‘failure’ in handling the pandemic has been highlighted in a new report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus. The cross-party group found the government had failed to learn from other countries, who unlike the UK had applied lessons learned from the previous coronavirus-related SARS and MERS epidemics. The interim report presents 71 findings and 44 recommendations, including greater support for the social care sector and the NHS and handing over the outsourced test and trace service to local authorities. It found “from the outset of the pandemic, frontline workers had inadequate access to personal protective equipment.” The report also noted: “The pandemic is having a clear impact on the mental health of frontline health and care workers. Many are experiencing stress, depression and burnout.” The report noted “Covid-19 has not impacted society equally,” and stressed the ‘disproportionate impact’ on frontline workers, particularly those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. GMB national secretary Rehana Azam, who gave evidence to the inquiry, said: “GMB has warned again and again that the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has cost jobs, people’s livelihoods and lives. The government’s outsourced test and trace strategy has failed and should be handed over to local authorities. The failures in addressing major issues on the frontline in the NHS and social care many that far preceded Covid-19.” She added: “GMB has long been calling for adequate equality impact assessments across our workplaces. As an employer itself, the government itself should be taking its public sector equality duty seriously. Inaction costs lives.” 
Interim report of the APPG’s findings based on the first 10 oral hearings from July to October 2020, All-Party Group on Coronavirus, December 2020. GMB news release.

Bosses could be liable for college Covid cases

Senior management teams in universities could face prosecution and civil action where their actions or omissions led to a member of staff falling ill or dying as a result of Covid-19 infection. The stark warning comes in specialist legal advice obtained by 10 branches of the lecturers’ union UCU. The union is concerned university staff are being put under pressure to resume face to face teaching despite heightened risks of infection. Harminder Bains, a partner with the law firm Leigh Day who was instructed by the UCU branches, advised there are circumstances where it could “be cogently argued that face to face teaching poses an unacceptable risk to staff such that a request by an HE [higher education] provider for face to face teaching can be lawfully refused and/or if it is insisted on, then the HE provider may be liable for consequences of the transmission of Covid-19 in the workplace in circumstances where a member of staff becomes infected.” Her legal opinion outlines the legal scope for injunctions, civil claims for negligence and criminal prosecutions. The UCU branches said the advice is important ammunition for members who may be required to teach face to face or work on campus against their will. Anthony O’Hanlon, president of the University of Liverpool UCU branch said: “The marketised model of higher education has placed staff and students at risk. This opinion shows that employers who endanger workers recklessly can be held liable, and, with the support of their union, employees can refuse to do dangerous work.” Jess Meacham of the University of Sheffield UCU branch, said there was widespread evidence of bad practices. “Since September, UCU branches have been overwhelmed with members reporting health and safety concerns, ranging from inadequate risk assessments to poorly-ventilated classrooms to concerns over student safety,” she said. UCU’s national office has calculated that the UK government's insistence that students should return to universities to receive in-person teaching this term has led to almost 50,000 cases of Covid on campus.
Leigh Day news release. UCU news release.

Call for extra powers for schools over Covid cases

Teaching union NASUWT is ‘becoming increasingly concerned’ that pupils who are sent home from school due to Covid-19 symptoms are being sent back to school prematurely, potentially putting staff and other pupils at risk. The union is calling for schools to be able to refuse re-admittance to children who went off with Covid-19 symptoms until either the isolation period has passed or proof of a negative test result is provided. It says this needs to be included in updated Department for Education (DfE) guidance to schools. The current government guidance states: ‘Schools should not request evidence of negative test results or other medical evidence before admitting children or welcoming them back after a period of self-isolation.’ NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach said: “It is clear that some parents will struggle where their children are required to self-isolate, and indeed a lack of financial support for parents may well be a driver for pupils to be sent back to school inappropriately. But this cannot trump the requirements to self-isolate and if infectious children are sent back to school, this risks a much larger outbreak.” He added: “Schools should be given the power to refuse to admit the child until the 10-day isolation period has elapsed or proof of a negative test result is provided. Taking it on trust that the child has tested negative is clearly insufficient. Where schools have concerns that a pupil has returned to school prematurely, they should be able to insist that the pupil remains at home for the remainder of the self-isolation period or until a negative test result is provided.”
NASUWT news release.

Vaccine rollout must not repeat Test and Trace errors

The TUC has warned the government against repeating the mistakes of Test and Trace by outsourcing the Covid-19 vaccine programme. The union body said ministers must learn the lessons from the failures of contact tracking and PPE provision by ensuring the design and delivery of the vaccination programme is led by public health professionals, not private contractors. It added people should be persuaded not compelled to be vaccinated, and workers should be allowed to get the jab in paid work time. The TUC noted: “Getting vaccinated must not be made a condition of employment or access to public services.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We all have a shared interest in getting the vaccine programme right. It’s our only shot at getting life back to normal. But that means learning the lessons from the failures of Test and Trace and PPE provision. The best way to deliver an effective rollout - and build public trust in the vaccine - is for local public health teams to run it. They know their communities best and are best placed to reach them. Outsourcing Test and Trace to private contractors has caused huge problems. We cannot afford the same mistake to be made with the delivery of the vaccine.” On the need to provide persuasion and support, the TUC leader added: “The Test and Trace programme has not supported people to do the right thing. People are still not being given the level of sick pay they need to self-isolate and are then hit with large fines for not complying. We need a sea-change of approach when it comes to the vaccine. People need to be persuaded, not forced into taking it. Allowing workers paid-time off to get vaccinated will help make things easier.”
TUC news release and blog.

NHS staff drop down Covid vaccine priority list

NHS staff will no longer be among the first people to be vaccinated against Covid-19 after a government rethink about who should be given priority. Hospitals will instead begin by immunising care home staff, and inpatients and outpatients aged over 80. The new policy departs from recommendation from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and policies in the US, France and elsewhere (Risks 976), with France particularly given priority to a wide range of essential workers (Risks 974). Frontline personnel were due to have the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine when the NHS starts rolling it out, after the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved it last week. NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts in England, confirmed on 3 December that health service staff had been moved back in the queue for who gets immunised in the next few weeks. It follows new UK-wide guidance on priority groups issued by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and the uncertainty over when the rest of the 5 million-strong initial batch of doses that ministers ordered will reach the UK. The JCVI said care home residents and staff and over-80s must be the first groups of people to have the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, with health workers next in line. The British Medical Association (BMA) warned that the rethink could lead to NHS staff dying. It’s chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, commented: “In the first wave, we saw far too many health and social care workers become incredibly sick with Covid – with many tragically dying – and therefore those working on the frontline need to be given the opportunity to get protected early.”
Government news release. JCVI priority groups update, 3 December 2020. The Guardian.

Essential jobs linked to high severe Covid-19 risks

Healthcare workers are seven times as likely to have severe Covid-19 as workers in ‘non-essential’ jobs, a new study has found. The risk is twice as high for those with jobs in the ‘social and education’ and transport sectors. The research, published online in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, focuses on the first UK-wide lockdown. The researchers compared the risk of developing severe Covid-19 infection in essential and non-essential workers, drawing on linked data from the UK Biobank study (2006-10), Covid-19 test results from Public Health England, and recorded deaths for the period 16 March to 26 July 2020. Severe infection was defined as a positive test result for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, while in hospital, or death attributable to the virus. Compared with non-essential workers, those working in healthcare roles were more than 7 times as likely to have severe infection. And those working in social care and education were 84 per cent as likely to do so; while ‘other’ essential workers had a 60 per cent higher risk of developing severe Covid-19. With the exception of transport workers, for whom heightened risk of severe Covid-19 infection was linked to socioeconomic status, the findings held true even after accounting for potentially influential risk factors, including lifestyle, co-existing health problems, and work patterns. Non-white essential workers had the highest risk of severe Covid-19 infection, the study found. The authors from Glagow, Syracuse and Limerick universities, conclude: “Our findings reinforce the need for adequate health and safety arrangements and provision of PPE for essential workers, especially in the health and social care sectors. The health and wellbeing of essential workers is critical to limiting the spread and managing the burden of global pandemics.”
Miriam Mutambudzi, Claire Niedwiedz, Ewan Beaton Macdonald and others. Occupation and risk of severe COVID-19: prospective cohort study of 120 075 UK Biobank participants, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, doi:10.1136/oemed-2020-106731.

Let’s not drop our guard, says STUC

Bosses must maintain the highest health and safety standards and find ways other than Christmas parties to thank workers, Scottish union body STUC has said. Responding on 8 December, the first day in the Covid vaccination rollout and the removal of multiple local authorities in Scotland from strict level 4 restrictions, the STUC called on workers not to drop their guard and for employers to stick to health and safety rules. STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “It’s enormously welcome news that the vaccination rollout has begun and that infection rates have reduced sufficiently to allow some areas to escape Level 4. However, it has never been more important that due precautions are taken both in the workplace and in the public realm.” She added: “Today in parliament, the first minister told us that there has been at least one significant workplace outbreak and this causes us continuing concern. Taken in conjunction with a potential further relaxation at Christmas, there is a risk that some individuals may drop their guard or that employers take their eye off the ball in obeying health and safety guidance. It is particularly vital that employers are clear that normal Christmas work parties cannot take place. Workers should be given the day off instead wherever possible.” Foyer also called for the new business support to be clearly targeted at protecting jobs, in particular for those workers not covered by furlough or earning less than the National Minimum Wage.
STUC news release. BBC News Online.

Care staff ‘one job’ limit could leave workers in poverty

Banning employees from working in more than one care home without guaranteeing wages will plunge thousands of low-income families into poverty, trigger staff shortages and put residents at risk, UNISON has said. The move came after it emerged the government’s outbreak modelling did not recognise that care workers moved between homes, increasing the risk of transmission of coronavirus. UNISON said that while minimising work in multiple locations is sensible to control the spread of Covid infections, it could leave many workers in ‘immediate hardship’ and should not be achieved by ‘government diktat’. Many care workers earn barely more than the minimum wage and are on zero hours contracts. The union says this leaves them no choice but to take up jobs with several employers. If the ‘one job’ rule becomes law, UNISON wants a guarantee that staff can work additional hours or get compensation for lost wages. Commenting on the government plans, UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Poverty pay is why so many care staff have multiple jobs in the first place,” adding: “The way to limit employees working in multiple locations is for employers to guarantee hours so staff no longer need to work in other care homes. Alternatively care homes can pay staff for the hours previously worked elsewhere. The government must ensure funds are available to achieve this. Defeating the virus and protecting lives is paramount. But it can’t be done without proper support for the employees who keep the country’s care homes running.”
UNISON news release.


Police probe after water plant blast kills 4 workers

An explosion at a Bristol water recycling centre on 3 December has killed four workers. Emergency services were called at approximately 11.20am to reports of a large explosion involving one of the chemical tanks at Wessex Water’s Avonmouth site. Those killed were working on top of the chemical tank at a water recycling centre when the blast occurred. They have been named as Brian Vickery, 63; Raymond White, 57; and 16-year-old apprentice Luke Wheaton, all employed by Wessex Water, and contractor Michael James, 64. A fifth person who was injured was treated for minor injuries and is now at home. It is believed the explosion occurred in an anaerobic digester, an oxygen-free tank used to produce agricultural fertiliser and renewable energy. Methane produced in the tank can explode in the presence or oxygen and an ignition source. Wessex Water chief executive Colin Skellett said the company was “absolutely devastated” by the incident, adding it would be working with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “to understand what happened and why.” Giles Hyder, head of operations in the South West for the workplace safety regulator the HSE, said: “It is important a joint investigation with the police is carried out. We will provide specialist support to what is likely to be a complex investigation under the command of the police.” Supt Simon Brickwood of Avon and Somerset Police said: “An investigation has been launched into the causes of the explosion, with the support of partner agencies and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This is likely to be ongoing for some time and we will be keeping the victims’ families informed throughout.” Hilda Palmer of FACK, a support and campaign network for the those bereaved in workplace tragedies, called for “a full and thorough criminal investigation.”
Avon and Somerset Police news release. Wessex Water statement. HSE statement. Hazards Campaign news release. Bristol Post and related news item. BBC News Online. The Mirror.

Unions offer support after ‘terrible tragedy’

Unions have expressed their sympathy to the families of the four workers who died in the Wessex Water explosion, and have said they are supporting members and their families caught up in the tragedy. John Phillips, GMB regional secretary, said: “This is a terrible tragedy, and our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of those who have been injured or killed. GMB will provide all necessary support to those members and their families affected by this incident.” He added: “This is another stark reminder of the absolute need to ensure people are able to work in environments where risks to their health and safety are properly controlled. Whilst the cause of this tragedy is not yet known, it is essential that a full and thorough investigation takes place at the appropriate time.” The union confirmed one of the dead, Brian Vickery, was a GMB member. Unite regional secretary for the south west Steve Preddy, commenting as news of the blast emerged, said: “We can confirm that Unite has three members working at Wessex Water Services Ltd in Avonmouth. We have contacted them this afternoon and they are, thankfully, uninjured, although in a state of shock. Unite will be giving our members maximum support in the days and weeks ahead.” He added: “Unite the union would wish to extend its deepest sympathy to the families of those employees who have lost their lives and as well as those injured in the explosion – our thoughts and solidarity are with all those affected by this tragic event. Unite would also like to thank the emergency services for their rapid, brave and professional response to this major incident. There will, in due course, be an investigation into this incident and Unite will contribute to any such inquiry.”
GMB news release and related news release. Unite statement. The Mirror.
GMB’s minute’s silence ‘tribute to the fallen’, live on Facebook at 11 am, Thursday, 10 December.

Shoppers urged to keep their cool as shops reopen

Retail trade union Usdaw is urging customers to follow the rules and respect shopworkers. As non-essential shops reopened on 2 December, the union said it was concerned that the four week shutdown could result in overcrowding and abuse of shopworkers if there is a rush back to the high street. Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said: “The run-up to Christmas is always a really busy time when stores are busy, shoppers can be stressed and things can boil over. We are concerned that after a four-week lockdown there could be crowds and chaos on our high streets, with people rushing back to shops that still have necessary Covid safety measures in place and that can result in abuse of shopworkers, or worse.” He added: “The reopening of non-essential stores ahead of Christmas offers a lifeline for many retailers, who would have struggled if they could not trade in December, traditionally the busiest month of the year. Our members are looking forward to welcoming back customers. We urge shoppers to avoid the first few days to help avoid overcrowding, follow the rules, be patient, but most of all ‘keep your cool’ and respect shopworkers.” Nottingham’s Winter Wonderland outdoor Christmas market managed just one day before it was closed in a joint decision by the council and the event organisers because of concerns over large crowds and little adherence to social distancing in the Tier 3 city. Similar annual events in cities including Birmingham and Manchester were cancelled this year due to the pandemic.
Usdaw news release. Nottingham City Council news release. BBC News Online.

Sainsbury’s told to give its staff a break

Unite has accused Sainsbury’s of ‘acting like Scrooge’ by insisting that staff come in on Boxing Day after working extended opening hours in the run up to Christmas. The union is also concerned that workers on the extended late shift could face an unsafe journey home. Sainsbury’s has agreed to operate reduced 10am to 5pm opening hours on Boxing Day. However, Unite said the company’s supermarkets will be open to customers from 6am until midnight between Monday 21 December and Wednesday 23 December. The union accused Sainsbury’s, which expects to bring in before tax profits of £270 million in 2020, of putting ‘wealth above the wellbeing of its workforce’. It is calling on Sainsbury’s to give its staff a Boxing Day break to rest and spend time with their families after working extra hours in the days before Christmas. Unite is also demanding that Sainsbury’s ensure measures are in place for staff to be able to get safely home after midnight when public transport is much more difficult to access. Unite national officer Bev Clarkson: “Sainsbury’s should embrace the Christmas spirit by recognising their staff have worked hard throughout the pandemic, on top of working extra hours over the festive period, and give them Boxing Day off.” She added: “Scrooge learns that some things are more important than the pursuit of riches: Sainsbury’s, who have made lots of money this year, should follow suit and give staff a well-earned break with their families. They should also put in place measures to ensure staff working until after midnight in the run up to Christmas can get home safely.”
Unite news release.


Racism’s impact on workers’ safety, webinar, 10 December

A Hazards Campaign webinar on 10 December will consider “racism and the disproportionate impact on health and safety - organising to protect workers.” An expert panel will lead a discussion on Zoom and address several key issues. “Why is health and safety an equality issue? Why have black workers been impacted more (infected and died) by Covid-19 and were they disproportionately at risk from injuries, ill health and work related death before Covid-19? What has been the management response to the increased risks faced by black workers? How can workers respond to the workplace risks?”
Hazards Campaign Thursday Talk: Racism and the disproportionate impact on health and safety - organising to protect workers, on Zoom, Thursday 10 December 2020, 6:00pm– 7:30pm. Register for the event.


China: Coal miners killed by carbon monoxide poisoning

Eighteen miners have died and several others are missing after a leak of carbon monoxide gas at a coal mine in the south-west of the country, Chinese state TV has reported. One person was rescued from the Diaoshuidong mine in Chongqing municipality, broadcaster CCTV reported. An investigation has been launched into the incident on 4 December. According to CCTV, the gas leak at the Diaoshuidong mine happened while workers were dismantling underground equipment. The mine had been closed for the previous two months. In September, 16 workers were killed at another mine on the outskirts of Chongqing when a conveyor belt caught fire, producing high levels of carbon monoxide. In December 2019, an explosion at a coal mine in Guizhou province, south-west China, killed at least 14 people.
BBC News Online.

Global: Pressure grows to let seafarers off ships

Pressure is mounting on governments to designate seafarers as ‘key workers’ to avoid the prospect of forced labour and human rights abuses in major supply chains this holiday season, representatives of the global transport unions’ federation ITF have said. An estimated 400,000 seafarers have been trapped on ships for months, as ports have refused to allow them to disembark during the Covid crisis. Now the United Nations General Assembly and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have each passed landmark resolutions calling for urgent action by national governments on the crew change crisis. ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton said: “We now have the full authority of the United Nations General Assembly saying that if countries want to participate in the global economy, then they must recognise this global workforce as ‘key workers’ with practical effect. Key worker status means letting seafarers get off in their ports for medical attention. It means letting them get to an airport to fly home and return to their families when their contract on a ship is completed. It means letting replacement crews through a country’s border to join those waiting ships.” The ITF, which represents more than a million seafarers through its affiliated seafaring unions, has been working behind the scenes with governments and UN agencies to secure the resolutions. “The global movement to recognise that seafarers need travel, transit and border exemptions and practical quarantine rules, is gaining momentum. Governments are starting to realise that they need to act now if they want to avoid being blamed for this pressing humanitarian – and potentially economic – crisis. The heat is on,” said Cotton.
ITF news release. ILO news release.


USA: Don’t give deadly bosses Covid immunity

With political leaders in the US now rallying around a relief package that could include a Republican-backed moratorium on Covid-19 lawsuits against employers, we cannot forget just how brazenly many large corporations continue to disregard the lives of frontline workers, top workers’ safety advocates have warned. In an opinion piece in The Hill, Jessica Martinez and Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-directors of the National COSH workplace safety coalition, highlight the case of the multinational meat processor Tyson Foods, which operate 110 plants in the country. It is facing a wrongful death suit, ran a book on the number of cases that would hit one plant and lied about a plant being free from Covid, “even as infections were raging.”  It is one of the companies that could receive legal immunity in the new Covid relief package. The plan provides short-term liability protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a measure considered a priority by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Martinez and Goldstein-Gelb comment: “The top priority for Covid relief — and other measures — should be to protect these workers, not their employers.” They say the workplace safety regulator OSHA should instead “hold companies accountable by providing better protection for whistleblowers, encouraging collaborative workplace infection control efforts, and improving inspection procedures. Instead, the agency has issued soft guidelines with no enforcement, allowing employers to set their own rules, resulting in profit and efficiency over lives and livelihoods.”
The Hill. CBS News.
Public Citizen petition: Do NOT give in to Mitch McConnell. Demand a vote on — and pass — coronavirus relief legislation WITHOUT legal immunity for corporations.


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