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



Covid deaths expose need for tougher work safety rules

 “Huge inequalities” in the labour market and large excesses of Covid-19 in workers in low paid and insecure work have been exposed in latest official statistics, the TUC has said. The union body was commenting on a new Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis of Covid-19 deaths by occupation. ONS reported there had been 7,961 deaths involving the coronavirus (Covid-19) registered in the working age population (those aged 20 to 64 years) of England and Wales between 9 March and 28 December 2020. Workers in hospitality, food and drink processing, transport and healthcare were found to be most at risk. In males, bakers and flour confectioners had a Covid-19 fatality rate 22.7 times higher than expected. Other high risk jobs included butchers (6.6x) and food and drink workers and care workers and home carers (all 3.5x higher). Jobs in manufacturing, health care, cleaning and construction all has rates at least double the expected rate. Among women, sewing machinists topped the Covid working age fatalities list, with a rate 3.9 times expected, followed by care workers and home carers (2.8x), chefs (2.5x) and retail workers, houseparents and residential wardens and social workers (all 2x). TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “The government urgently needs to beef up its workplace safety guidance and get tough on employers who put their workers in harm’s way. Ministers must stop turning a blind eye to unsafe workplaces. It beggars belief that not one employer has been prosecuted and fined for breaking Covid safety rules.”  The TUC said workplace-related Covid-19 deaths are vastly under-reported, despite a legal reporting duty on employers. It wants the government to ensure reporting of cases, tougher workplace rules to prevent outbreaks, and an enforcement clampdown on “rule-breaking bosses”.  The TUC added that statutory sick pay should be increased to the real living wage and should be available to all workers.
TUC news release. Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation, England and Wales: deaths registered between 9 March and 28 December 2020, ONS, 25 January 2021. Morning Star. The Guardian.

GMB demands action on ‘devastating’ figures

‘Devastating’ official figures linking nearly 8,000 working age deaths to Covid-19 in England and Wales in 2020 require an ‘immediate’ government response, the union GMB has said. Occupations with the highest number of Covid-19 linked deaths were care workers and home carers (347 deaths), taxi and cab drivers (213 deaths), sales and retail assistants (180 deaths), nurses (157 deaths), and cleaners and domestic workers (153 deaths). Dan Shears, GMB’s national health, safety and environment director, commented: “The deaths of eight thousand working age people is a devastating and bitter milestone that could have been avoided. The truth is that the UK was too slow to respond to the outbreak in workplaces. The messages from ministers have been inconsistent, and to date there have been no prosecutions of employers for breaches of regulations relating to coronavirus.” He added: “Workers are still being forced to use inadequate PPE, and some people are attending work despite being infectious because they cannot afford to self-isolate. These are structural problems that could have been fixed months ago. The time for action is now – ministers and employers must urgently convene with workers’ representatives to address the ongoing and needless risks in workplaces before more lives are lost.” The ONS figures also show over 2,000 Covid-19 deaths in construction workers of working age. Roofers, roof tilers and slaters died of Covid-19 at three times the expect rate and ‘elementary construction occupations’ at 2.5 times the expected rate. Total UK Covid-19 deaths this week topped the 100,000 mark.
GMB news release. National Tradesmen. The Guardian.

Counting the horrible toll of Covid on the workforce

The Office for National Statistics’ breakdown of Covid-19 deaths in working people revealed some shocking truths. Low paid ‘essential’ jobs and caring roles are associated with a greatly elevated risk of death from the infection. “When looking at broad groups of occupations, men who worked in elementary occupations (699 deaths) or caring, leisure and other service occupations (258 deaths) had the highest rates of death involving Covid-19, with 66.3 and 64.1 deaths per 100,000 males, respectively,” ONS noted. “In women, process, plant and machine operatives (57 deaths) and caring, leisure and other service occupations (460 deaths) had the highest rates of death involving Covid-19 when looking at broad occupational groups, with 33.7 and 27.3 deaths per 100,000 females, respectively. Men (79.0 deaths per 100,000 males; 150 deaths) and women (35.9 deaths per 100,000 females; 319 deaths) who worked in social care occupations had statistically significantly higher rates of death involving Covid-19 when compared with rates of death involving Covid-19 in the population among those of the same age and sex.” Ben Humberstone, the ONS head of health analysis and life events, said while the findings do not prove workplace exposures are responsible for the deaths, “jobs with regular exposure to Covid-19 and those working in close proximity to others continue to have higher Covid-19 death rates when compared with the rest of the working-age population.”
Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation, England and Wales: deaths registered between 9 March and 28 December 2020, ONS, 25 January 2021.

Government implicated in high security sector deaths

Government policy and a lack of sick pay is to blame for high numbers of Covid-related deaths in security workers, the union GMB has indicated. The union said it believes that since the start of the pandemic there have been at least four G4S security guard deaths on the government’s Jobcentre contract. GMB was speaking out after ONS figures revealed there had been 143 Covid-19 deaths in the security sector. The ONS analysis found that security guards and those in related occupations had one of the highest fatality rates for men, with 100.7 deaths per 100,000 linked to coronavirus. GMB said it has been critical of the UK government's failure to provide guaranteed Covid absence pay for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) security guards on the Jobcentre contract when they needed to self-isolate. GMB national officer Nadine Houghton said: “It’s no surprise to GMB members working as security guards in job centres that their occupation has some of the highest Covid death rates. Our members repeatedly tell us about the challenges they face working on the front line in jobcentres, breaches of social distancing, abusive behaviour from customers and now a derisory pay offer from the Department of Work and Pensions – it's a kick in the teeth.” She added: “We’ve repeatedly pushed [work and pensions secretary] Therese Coffey to ensure there are proper Covid absence payments for jobcentre security guards, and it’s a scandal that, whilst we have won improvements, we still don’t have an adequate scheme. It can’t wait. With security staff at even more risk than usual, the minister needs to act immediately to provide proper absence payments and give the guards in her department a proper pay rise.”
GMB news release.

Call for key worker priority for vaccines and testing

Retail trade union Usdaw has renewed its call for key workers to be prioritised for vaccination, testing and risk assessment, after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics on Covid death rates by occupation revealed many key workers are at a higher risk. Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said: “The new ONS statistics demonstrate that many key workers, who are providing essential services during the pandemic, have an elevated Covid-19 related death rate. It is clear that close proximity to the public and other workers, as well as an indoor working environment are factors.” He added: “This is worrying for our members in the essential food supply industry, including those in processing plants, distribution, essential retail and grocery delivery. So we are working with employers to revisit risk assessments and ensure that all safety precautions are adhered to. We also call on the public to follow the necessary safety measures in stores, like wearing a face covering, observing social distancing, shopping alone where possible and respecting shopworkers.” The Usdaw leader concluded: “The government must prioritise vulnerable occupations in the second phase of the vaccine rollout, reflecting the risks they face. They have worked throughout the pandemic to keep the country supplied with essentials and these key workers must be valued, respected and protected.”
Usdaw news release.

Support for self isolation must be a top priority, say experts

Helping people to self isolate after testing positive for Covid-19 must be a top priority for the UK government, experts have said, noting low pay is the primary reason people fail to follow guidelines. Dr Muge Cevik at the University of St Andrews and colleagues say the focus should be on those working in high exposure occupations, living in overcrowded housing, or without a home, and should include free and safe accommodation alongside adequate income support, job protection, and help with caring responsibilities. They point to UK survey data suggesting that fewer than one in five people are able to adhere to isolation protocols. Notably, lower rates of adherence have been reported among men, younger people, key workers, those living with dependent children, and those in lower socioeconomic groups. Although willingness to self-isolate was high across all respondents, the self-reported ability to isolate was three times lower among those earning less than £20,000 a year or who had less than £100 saved. This finding is consistent with reports that lost wages are the primary reason for not following isolation guidelines. “The next phase of the public health response must align testing strategies with people’s lived realities,” they argue. “Ultimately, people need to be able to isolate without fear of a substantial damage to their work, income, family, or caring responsibilities,” the editorial says. The authors conclude: “We can’t wait for vaccine mediated decreases in morbidity and mortality to manifest. Too many lives have been lost or destroyed. Integrating equitable support services for those most at risk for Covid-19 is a national emergency and governments should act accordingly.” Dr Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of The BMJ commented: “The UK’s political leaders seem to have their heads in the sand while waiting for the vaccine to rescue us. Unless they take other effective action to control the spread of the virus, they will be judged to have been fatally negligent.” She added: “Huge sums have been spent on test and trace, but even if this were being well managed, it works only if those who test positive are able to self isolate. Action is urgently needed to support people to self isolate, to break the chain of infection, move us safely out of lockdown, ease the strain on the NHS, and prevent more avoidable illness and death.”
Muge Cevik, Stefan D Baral, Alex Crozier, Jackie A Cassel. Editorial: Support for self-isolation is critical in Covid-19 response, BMJ 2021; 372: n224

HSE criticised for ‘astounding’ oversight failures

Construction’s largest safety crisis in living memory has been met with a shockingly inadequate response from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an investigation by Construction News has found. The trade paper, which has questioned its readership on their Covid concerns since the start of the pandemic, cites experts who express serious concerns about the lack of official oversight on sites. British Safety Council chair Lawrence Waterman highlighted a lack of public engagement from the HSE over the past year, describing the situation as “astounding”. He told Construction News: “This is the biggest health crisis in my lifetime, worse than asbestos. Construction workers are ticking almost all of the at-risk boxes… and the HSE is invisible; I’m amazed.” In December, two private debt-collection companies – Engage Services (part of Marston Holdings) and CDER Group – were awarded contracts by HSE worth a combined £7m to carry out spot checks on behalf of the regulator. It is the largest expenditure from the extra non-recurring £14m funds HSE was given to fight Covid, and the first time in history that private companies have been paid to carry out HSE inspections. Commenting on the new ‘Spot check support officers’, an HSE spokesperson said: “Similar to the proactive telephone-based spot checks introduced earlier in the year, we have implemented the same process for spot-check visits to workplaces, using third-party suppliers.” Mike Clancy, general secretary of the HSE inspectors’ union Prospect, is concerned at private contractors being brought in to carry out “tick-box checks”, in site visits that would previously have been done by experienced inspectors. “Lower-quality ‘spot checks’ delivered by the private sector further highlights the structural lack of capacity in HSE, thanks to a decade of underfunding,” he said. “A world-class safety regime cannot be delivered on the cheap.” HSE chief executive Sarah Albon’s previous job was head of the Insolvency Service.
Construction News. Engage news release. CDER Group news release. CIR magazine.

Covid outbreaks at all-time high, enforcement at new low

The week to 21 January saw the highest number of reported Covid outbreaks since the pandemic began, prompting the TUC to repeat its call for stricter rules and greater enforcement of the rules. “There is currently an all-time high number of Covid-19 outbreaks – which is when at least two people test positive for the virus. This suggests that some instances of Covid are being spread from person to person at work,” stated TUC safety lead Shelly Asquith. She expressed dismay that in 2020, despite the pandemic, there had been significantly fewer Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspections compared to previous years, with just 0.1 per cent of cases investigated by HSE resulted in any official enforcement notices being served. While tens of thousands of individuals have been fined, not a single employer has been prosecuted for Covid-19 safety breaches. In a TUC blog posting, the TUC safety specialist noted: “While we want tougher safety rules, and better enforcement of the rules, we also need to cut the chain of transmission by ensuring those who may have Covid can remove themselves from work. That means making it as easy as possible for people to self-isolate when they need to by paying them their full wages, or at least an uprated level of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).” Asquith called on union reps to demand employers update their Covid risk assessment, in consultation with the union, and hold regular health and safety meetings. She added unions should ensure those who can work from home do, and every possible measure to eliminate or reduce risk is acted upon. They should also negotiate for occupational sick pay to cover all workers. The TUC is also urging union reps to report any breach of safety rules to the regulator and to “organise”, with renewed efforts to “recruit members, hold meetings, enlist new reps. Unionised work is safer work.”
TUC blog and TUC guide to the protective union effect on workplace safety.

Experts tell HSE to step up and do its job

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) should be ‘restored the wherewithal’ to fulfil its mandate and should get on and do its job, occupational medicine experts have said. In correspondence published in the Lancet on 23 January, the academics from De Montfort, Manchester and Nottingham universities note: “The HSE needs to step up in this pandemic, independently of political influence, and to firmly enforce occupational hygiene measures for source control, including regular staff testing, segregation, and ventilation.” In an implied criticism of the regulator’s relaxed approach to airborne risks posed by the virus, they add “the HSE should apply precautionary principles with regards to the proliferating evidence for aerosol transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus.” The article also questions whether the regulator based some of its strategy on political expediency rather than scientific evidence, leaving workers at avoidable risk. The authors note: “The HSE should recognise research, such as its own showing the marked superiority of filtering facepiece respirators (eg, FFP3) over surgical masks, and should re-assert its own guidance to use such respirators as personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers. Early in the pandemic, the HSE adopted a risk-adapted management strategy and tolerated less stringent PPE requirements, perhaps because of the inadequate, depleted, and neglected state of the national stockpile of PPE.” They conclude: “Several months have since elapsed, and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent amassing huge stocks of PPE. It is not clear why the HSE is still not recommending respirators as PPE for public transport workers and other public-facing occupations, as well as in health and social care in situations where control at source, barriers, and ventilation are not adequate.” Unions have also called for extended use of the more protective FFP3 respirators (Risks 980).
Raymond M Agius, Denise Kendrick, Herb F Sewell, Marcia Stewart, John FR Robertson. Reaffirming health and safety precautionary principles for COVID-19 in the UK, The Lancet, volume 397, issue 10271, page 274, 23 January 2021. doi:

Ministers faces fury over massive outbreak at DVLA

Ministers are at the centre of a row over their failure to protect workers from Covid-19 after it was revealed the largest workplace outbreak of the virus has taken place at a top government organisation. More than 500 cases have been recorded at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s offices in Swansea, where employees claim people with symptoms were encouraged to return to work while vulnerable workers have had requests to work from home turned down (Risks 981). A complaint received by Public Health Wales’s outbreak control team claims DVLA workers were asked to turn off their test-and-trace apps “so that their phones do not ping”. It also says absences relating to Covid have counted against workers’ sick leave, with anything over 10 days triggering a warning. The Observer reports about 1,800 staff are being asked to come into the DVLA to process driving licence applications and vehicle tax renewals, even though there have been 535 Covid cases since September – by far the most infections linked to a single employer in a local area. The union-backed Hazards Campaign said it was shameful that a government agency was responsible for the largest known employee outbreak of coronavirus infection in the UK. “It is absolutely shocking that the DVLA has overseen the biggest reported workplace outbreak. These workers should have been working remotely, not being packed into offices. They have been put at risk of death and long-term ill health – and the outbreak is still going on,” said Janet Newsham from the campaign. She warned: “The DVLA’s actions may also have spread the virus in Swansea.” Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the union PCS, said: “Ministers must intervene and ensure DVLA are doing their utmost to enable staff to work from home and temporarily cease non-critical services.” On 18 January, PCS said it was ‘ridiculous’ ministers and management were insisting the DVLA offices remain open.
The Observer. BBC News Online and update.

Bus Covid safety plea after Unite driver rep dies

Unite has paid to tribute to ‘well-loved and respected’ Brighton bus driver Christopher Turnham following his death last week from Covid-19. The 58-year-old, a longstanding Unite workplace representative, died on 20 January shortly after falling ill with Covid-19. Unite said Brighton and Hove buses has been working with the union throughout the pandemic to ensure that it buses, depots and other workplaces are as Covid secure as possible. But the heightened risk to frontline workers, such as bus drivers and others in public facing roles, of coming into contact with the virus, has prompted both Christopher’s family and Unite to remind people to strictly abide by coronavirus safety guidelines. Unite regional officer Phil Silkstone said: “Social distancing and mask wearing by passengers and the general public is particularly crucial for our bus drivers and other key workers, who, like Chris, dutifully put themselves and their families at risk every day to keep our communities running. Our thoughts and condolences are with Chris’ friends and family at this incredibly sad time and Unite will be working with the company as always to ensure a safe environment for all.” In a statement, Chris’ family said: “We are devastated at the passing of our much-loved son, brother and uncle Christopher. He was a truly caring and gentle soul who was loved by so many. We are left with a huge hole in our hearts, life will never be the same without him. We do not wish the pain we are feeling to be inflicted upon any other families. Please, we implore you, follow the guidelines and wear a mask at all times.” 
Unite news release.

Covid concern as outbreak spreads at bus station

Unite Scotland has voiced growing concerns for the health and wellbeing of the Bannockburn First Bus depot workforce. Last week it was revealed that First Bus was reducing services out of the depot after a number of staff members tested positive for coronavirus. Unite has been informed that as of 24 January a total of 28 positive cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed at the depot - over half the workforce. It said First Bus must consider closing the depot and provide full-pay for all those workers where it would be unfeasible to work from another depot or who are having to self-isolate due to the outbreak. Graeme Turnbull, Unite industrial officer, said: “This is a timely reminder of the considerable risk and sacrifice that our members and all transport workers undertake on a daily basis to ensure key workers and our communities function in these challenging times. It is also vitally important that the company conducts an immediate investigation to understand how the virus has been able to take hold and spread across the workforce.”
Unite news release.

Transport staff face ‘complacent and callous’ approach

A ‘complacent and callous’ approach to the increased threat from Covid-19 is leading to a surge in deaths and illness affecting transport workers, RMT has said. The transport union says feedback it has received reveal the number of deaths and illnesses due to coronavirus amongst rail workers have at least doubled since November. The union said Department for Transport figures also show that rail use is three times higher compared to the last national lockdown. It claims that ‘creeping complacency and a callous refusal’ by transport bosses to mandate a nationwide overhaul of risk assessments to take into account the heightened risk of the new variant has led to the surge. RMT is calling for transport workers to be classified as a priority group for vaccination, not only to protect lives but also to ensure the railways can continue to transport essential goods and workers. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “A more infectious and now it seems more deadly variant of the Covid-19 virus plus an increase in passenger numbers is a lethal cocktail threatening rail workers, with deaths and illness doubling since November. But instead of responding to our call for an urgent national review of all risk assessments we are being told its business as usual – this is as callous as it is complacent.” He added: “We are advising our members of their right to stop working if their safety is threatened and I will be seeking an urgent meeting with [transport secretary] Grant Shapps asking that he intervenes to take speedy action to address the new threat and also to prioritise transport workers for the vaccine. Both steps are necessary not only to save lives but also to protect the resilience of the transport network.”
RMT news release.

Large outbreak at Scotland’s biggest pig processor

The number of positive coronavirus cases at an Angus pig plant has risen to 34, with the outbreak also linked to a cluster at a local nursery. Commenting on the outbreak at the Quality Pork Processors (QPP) factory in Brechin, NHS Tayside associate director of public health and chair of the incident management team (IMT), Dr Ellie Hothersall, said: “Thirty-four cases of Covid-19 connected to the Quality Pork Processors in Brechin have now been identified. This was an expected increase, with the additional positive cases already self-isolating.” Bosses at the firm have been criticised for what has been perceived as a lack of openness about the severity of the outbreak. The company issued a statement saying the decision to close was taken due to “high absenteeism” among staff as a result of the outbreak. It said all those affected will be placed on furlough and are being “fully supported”. The plant is Scotland’s only major pig processing facility. A cluster of coronavirus cases at a Brechin nursery have been linked to the outbreak. Planet Radio this week reported that at least seven people at the Playspaces nursery, including children, have tested positive.
The Courier. Pig World. Planet Radio. FarmingUK. BBC News Online.

Dairy worker dies and 95 staff are self-isolating

One worker at a major dairy has died after contracting coronavirus and 95 other workers are self-isolating. Muller Milk & Ingredients confirmed last week that 47 workers have tested positive for the virus in the outbreak at its dairy near Bridgwater, Somerset. The firm said the safety of its products had not been affected.  It added: “It is important to stress that fresh milk processing is highly automated ensuring no risk to products, with our Bridgwater facility one of the most modern dairies in the UK. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we are placing the safety of our employees first and following best practice as set down by the Health and Safety Executive. Standard measures in place include the use of facemasks, distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and hygiene, underpinned by a programme of e-learning, information and audits to ensure compliance and awareness of the measures.”
BBC News Online. Bridgewater Mercury.

Call for immediate courts safety review

There must be an immediate review of safety arrangements across HM courts and tribunals service (HMCTS) amid increasing concerns that courts are unsafe in the face of the number of Covid-19 cases rising sharply, the union PCS has said. The civil service union said last week it had told Kevin Sadler, acting CEO of HMCTS, that there has been a failure to implement measures to ensure that all buildings are Covid-19 secure. A 22 January joint statement sent to HMCTS by unions PCS, Napo, POA and FDA and the Criminal Bar Association accuses the service of failing to take ‘timely and appropriate action’ to improve safety arrangements as levels of Covid-19 transmission in courts and tribunals buildings escalated. There have been more than 600 positive cases among professional court users across the HMCTS estate since 24 November, which the groups say demonstrates the alarming extent of the crisis emerging in the justice sector. The groups said if HMCTS continues to fail to take action to ensure that transmission levels are significantly reduced and professional, lay and public court users are safe, then further action will be necessary. “Our calls for safety for all court users are realistic and achievable and must be met as a matter of urgency,” the statement said. “We expect HMCTS to rectify the current situation by taking the appropriate actions necessary to ensure the safety of all who attend court. Failure to do so will result in potential political, legal and industrial responses from some of the signatory organisations of this statement.”
PCS news release.

Union notice urges EA to beef up safety measures

In the face of the increased transmission rates of the new Covid-19 variant, unions including UNISON, Prospect, GMB and Unite have issued a Union Improvement Notice calling on the Environment Agency to review its risk assessments. The unions say while many Environment Agency employees are working from home, some essential workers are still attending depots and other workplaces. The unions’ notice calls for the Environment Agency to review measures, and calls for the introduction of compulsory face coverings in communal areas and consideration of flexible start and finish times to reduce social contact with colleagues. UNISON head of health and safety Robert Baughan said: “This case has demonstrated the importance, in the light of the new variant, of all employers reviewing their risk assessments, and ensuring that all measures, such as wearing of face coverings in communal areas, are put in place.” He added: “By going into work, many of our members are already risking their health. The least they can expect from employers is the assurance that everything that is reasonable has been put in place to keep them safe.”
UNISON news release. BBC News Online.

Unpaid healthcare students need life assurance

Thousands of healthcare students carrying out unpaid placements should be covered by the £60,000 lump sum life assurance payouts if they succumb to Covid-19, Unite has said. The union has written to the health and social care secretary Matt Hancock asking him to close a loophole in the NHS and Social Care Coronavirus Life Assurance Scheme 2020 as a matter of urgency. The scheme allows for a £60,000 lump sum payment to be paid to families, if a health or social care worker dies as a result of Covid-19. Unite, which said it has been approached by a number of its healthcare students on the issue, said that the current scheme in England only states that students who are undertaking ‘paid frontline roles’ are covered by the scheme. In a letter to Matt Hancock, Unite national officers for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe and Jackie Williams call for the scheme to be amended as ‘a matter of urgency’ to include healthcare students on unpaid placements. Commenting on the letter, Unite’s Jackie Williams said: “Our NHS staff are giving 100 per cent in the battle against Covid-19, but unfortunately more than 620 health and social care staff have already died as a result of coronavirus. The least that the government can do is to close this loophole so that healthcare students on unpaid placements are covered by the £60,000 life assurance lump sum.”
Unite news release.

Covid concern as routine house repairs continue

Clarion Housing Group, one of the UK’s largest social housing landlords, is demanding routine repairs continue at its properties, despite some residents being Covid-19 positive, Unite has said. The union met last week with the group’s senior management. This followed the submission of a petition from more than 200 maintenance staff calling for ‘essential repairs only’ as the pandemic continues to be widespread. Unite regional officer Matt Freeman said: “Despite the issues raised, the key takeaway from the meeting was that Clarion is not changing its position. However, the managers did commit to investigate the clear issues that have been raised by Unite.” He added: “Clarion’s position essentially is that jobs are safe under the current regime. It maintains that if any Covid-19 measures are not adhered to, for example, social distancing of all members of a household including children, then the job can be rejected by the individual operative and that no employee will be disciplined or threatened for rejecting a job that they did not feel was safe. However, examples were given where disciplinary action has been threatened, if jobs are refused. The managers said this was not acceptable and they did not want people to be going into jobs, if they felt coerced.” The Unite official continued: “Given these assurances, our members should not feel pressurised to complete jobs if they feel they are unsafe. Unite will back any member who faces threats or disciplinary action for rejecting a job they genuinely felt was not Covid-19 safe.” But he said the union believed “the safest option is to follow the lead of six of the 12 largest housing associations in London and remove a significant amount of risk by stopping routine repairs.” Latest government figures show the Covid-19 working age death rate for ‘elementary construction occupations’ is 2.5 times the expected rate.
Unite news release.

Stats show school staff need Covid protection

The government must take urgent action to protect school staff from Covid-19, unions have said. UNISON and GMB, who represent school support staff, were commenting after official figures revealed education staff face being infected at about twice the expected rate (Risks 981). The statistics released by the Department of Education (DfE) on 19 January revealed that the rate of Covid-19 infection for school staff could be three times higher in primary schools and almost seven times higher in special schools than in the general population. UNISON said it has been estimated that in the current lockdown 39 per cent of teachers and school leaders and 51 per cent of teaching assistants and other staff are working on-site in open settings. UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “UNISON has been telling the government for months that school staff are at a higher risk from the virus than others…. With more pupils in schools than the last lockdown, there is more reason to take urgent action. And now the bald facts are out there, the government needs to take our recommendations seriously.” Writing to the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, UNISON said urgent action is needed. “The most vulnerable children should be in school,” it noted, but “the wider definition of vulnerable has led to a massive increase in numbers attending special schools and this is both putting support staff in those schools at risk and undermining the effects of reducing community transmission.” GMB national secretary Rehana Azam said: “Ministers across government need to wake up and recognise the reality that hundreds of thousands of low-paid school workers are at high risk of infection, with devastating consequence for workers, pupils and the wider community. The reality is that without urgent priority access to vaccinations for school support staff, the cycle of community transmission in schools will not be broken.”
UNISON news release. GMB news release.


Government should publish rights rollback review

Unite is demanding that the UK government discloses the full impact of any rollback of workers’ rights. The union call comes in a letter from general secretary Len McCluskey to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who is overseeing the review (Risks 981). Unite has described efforts to cut rights as a 'bad bosses' charter' and a gift to rogue employers that will force workers to work longer hours, on lower pay and seriously undermine family life. In his letter, the Unite leader writes: “Unite is engaged with some 38,000 employers around the country, of all shapes and sizes, on a daily basis and I can confirm categorically that altering the basic legal rights of their workers is not their priority. Instead, they tell us that they want stability, investment, improved skills across the workforce and the promised industrial strategy to lead to active government engagement with them in the support and renewal of UK industry.” He adds: “We oppose any efforts by the government to diminish the rights of the workers of this country, who have committed themselves fully to public service during this year of crisis despite the appalling behaviour of some employers.” The letter continues: “Attacks on working time, are highly likely to make the lives of these workers and that of their families even harder. Longer working hours are certain to lead to pay cuts, putting many below the legal minimum wage. Longer working hours also put health and safety at risk because exhausted workers are unsafe workers, and will place rest and family time under immense stress. These consequences must be fully considered and be fully and publicly disclosed.” In a 25 January joint statement, 12 unions warned they will fight Boris Johnson “tooth and nail” to stop any watering down of workers’ rights. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Boris Johnson promised to make the UK the best place in the world to work in. It’s high time he delivered on this promise. That means fast-tracking his much-delayed employment bill. And it means abandoning any attempt to water down hard-won workers’ rights from the EU.”  
TUC news release. Unite news release. Usdaw news release. Labour Party news release. The Mirror.

UNISON demands higher PPE ‘human rights standards’

UNISON has joined a push for a new law to prevent UK businesses and public services from sourcing from companies that violate workers’ human rights. Evidence has emerged throughout the pandemic that PPE suppliers to the NHS were tied to severe, widespread human rights violations of workers in the global south. One of a number of known abusive suppliers is Top Glove, the world’s largest maker of rubber gloves (Risks 978). Top Glove have seen their profits triple in 2020, whilst investigations showed that gloves were being made by migrant workers forced to work in cramped conditions in Malaysian factories and to live in squalid, crowded dormitories. Reports of human rights abuses in the PPE industry aren’t limited to gloves. Gowns were reportedly being made with North Korean forced labour and masks by ethnic Uighur in forced detention in China. Currently, there is no legal duty for companies to make sure they are not sourcing goods from suppliers who violate human rights. UNISON is working to build demand for the new law, in a drive supported by global, regional and national union bodes, environmental and labour rights groups and many other parties. UNISON head of international relations Nick Crook said: “We hope the new EU regulation will capture as many UK businesses as possible so that more and more businesses demand a UK regulation that levels the playing field.” UNISON said it believes that the new law should cover all workers’ rights violations, not just the narrow focus of forced labour that the ‘toothless’ Modern Slavery Act requires. These include instances of wage theft, recruitment fees, threats and intimidation of workers and sexual harassment.
UNISON news release. Parliamentary briefing on a ‘Failure to Prevent’ law.
UNISON is encouraging union members to add their voice to a EU consultation on measures that would apply to UK headquartered companies by signing here.

Action needed as assaults on emergency workers soar

Urgent action is needed to address rising levels of violence directed at emergency workers, the union GMB has said. The union was commenting in the wake of new Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures on assaults against emergency workers linked to Covid-19. According to the CPS statistics, 1,688 people were charged with assaulting an emergency worker in ways that were linked to Covid-19 in the six months to 30 September last year. Examples included emergency workers being coughed on or spat at. Assaults on emergency workers was the most common reason people were charged for offences linked to Covid-19. GMB national officer Rachel Harrison commented: “No-one should go to work in fear of being assaulted. Emergency workers’ jobs are extremely challenging at the best of times, and assaults during the pandemic are putting lives at risk. It is clear that ambulance workers and others in emergency services need much more protection and support. The law is only as strong as its enforcement, and sadly these figures are just the tip of the iceberg.” She added: “Stronger deterrents are urgently needed to make sure that perpetrators are brought to justice. That is why GMB is campaigning for NHS Trusts to improve their support to workers at risk of assault, and for better working between agencies to ensure that more assailants are held accountable for their actions.”
GMB news release. CPS news release. BBC News Online.

Steel company fined after driver fatally injured

An Essex steel firm has been fined after a worker was fatally injured by steelwork, which fell from a telehandler forklift truck during loading. Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court heard how on 4 April 2019, Chris Sparks, an employee of South East Galvanizers Limited, had visited PCR Steel Ltd at their premises in Essex to collect a load. He was performing an unplanned lifting operation, loading a metal balcony base frame onto a flatbed trailer, when the incident occurred. The load was not secured and the balcony frame weighing approximately 400kg fell and crushed the 47-year-old, who had been standing on the back of the trailer bed. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company failed to ensure that the lifting operation was properly planned by a competent person, appropriately supervised, and carried out in a safe manner. There was no lift plan for the manoeuvring of balcony frames that could have considered the load’s security, size and weight. There was no plan for how the load would be set down, nor for how to exclude people from the danger zone. PCR Steel Ltd pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The company was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay costs of £9,900. HSE inspector Jill Mead commented: “This was a tragic and wholly avoidable incident, caused by the failure of the host company to implement safe systems of work.”
HSE news release.


Global: Call to end ‘humanitarian crisis’ at sea

A broad group of unions, companies and other organisations is calling for all countries to designate seafarers as key workers and implement crew change protocols to address a ‘humanitarian crisis’ at sea. The Neptune Declaration signed by over 300 maritime industry and human rights leaders is intended to pressure the industry to use its leverage to end the deepening crew change crisis. Signatories include major multinationals BP, Cargill, Rio Tinto and Shell. Global union federation ITF said those who took up the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change had pledged to deliver on a shared responsibility to resolve a crisis which has seen hundreds of thousands of the world’s seafarers pushed into what amounts to forced labour. ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton welcomed the commitments of the 327 companies and organisations that signed the declaration, an initiative led by the Global Maritime Forum. “With the rise of new variants of Covid, we are sadly seeing governments backsliding and bringing in more restrictions. Right now is the time for every CEO, every board member, of every company that relies on global shipping, to demand that governments don’t forget the key workers driving their economies and unblock their borders to seafarers before this crisis gets worse,” said Cotton. “Companies must now be held to account. This means no more charter parties with ‘no crew change’ clauses: charterers must work with shipowners to facilitate crew changes. This means investors asking the companies they own and deal with what the companies are doing to address the crisis. And this means asking why any company in the industry didn’t sign this declaration.”
ITF news release. Neptune Declaration and full list of signatories.

USA: Low paid workers face greatest Covid risk

Essential workers, especially in food and transportation industries, bear the greatest risk of death among Californians of working age, a study has found. The researchers from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) suggest the employees should be moved up the line for vaccinations. Cooks, packaging machine operators, agricultural workers, bakers and construction laborers are among the riskiest jobs, the study found. Other occupations with a high risk of death include sewing machine operators, shipping and receiving clerks, maintenance workers, customer service workers, truck drivers, maids and house cleaners. “While we pay a lot of lip service to essential workers, when you see the actual occupations that rise to the top of the list as being at much more risk and associated with death, it screams out to you who’s really at risk,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a UCSF epidemiology and biostatistics professor who worked on the study. Researchers examined death rates of Californians ages 18 to 65, a group that accounts for a third of Covid-19 deaths, from March through to October, and compared them with pre-pandemic statistics to determine which occupations experienced the biggest increases in deaths. The study also evaluated race and different occupations. Working adults in the 18-65 range experienced a 22 per cent increase in deaths during the pandemic, according to the study. Food and agriculture workers, however, had a 39 per cent increase, with transportation and logistics workers seeing a 28 per cent increase, facilities workers a 27 per cent rise and manufacturing workers a 23 per cent increase. Most of those jobs are held by lower-income workers who don’t have the choice of working from home and are often forced to work in proximity to co-workers, the study reported.
Yea-Hung Chen, Maria Glymour, Alicia Riley, John Balmes, Kate Duchowny, Robert Harrison, Ellicott Matthay, Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo. Excess mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic among Californians 18–65 years of age, by occupational sector and occupation: March through October 2020, medRxiv 2021.01.21.21250266; doi:  San Francisco Chronicle.

USA: Biden acts immediately to address work Covid risks

On his first full day as US president, Joe Biden ordered immediate action to address workplace Covid-19 risks. A 21 January executive order requiring “swift action” to address workplace risks notes: “Ensuring the health and safety of workers is a national priority and a moral imperative. Healthcare workers and other essential workers, many of whom are people of colour and immigrants, have put their lives on the line during the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic. It is the policy of my Administration to protect the health and safety of workers from Covid-19.” Increased enforcement, outreach with unions and consideration of an emergency standard before 15 March are all included. The ‘Protecting Worker Health and Safety’ executive order was welcomed by unions. In a statement, Richard Trumka, president of the national union federation AFL-CIO, noted: “By issuing this overdue and desperately needed executive order on his first full day in office, President Biden is clearly prioritising strong Covid-19 protections for working people. We applaud this swift action that will save lives and protect workers who face dangerous conditions daily while serving our communities.” He added: “Strong enforceable standards would require employers to develop workplace safety plans, implement science-based protection measures, train workers and report outbreaks. It is a key piece of Biden’s national strategy to ramp up Covid-19 testing, vaccinations and the production of personal protective equipment so we can beat this virus once and for all. The AFL-CIO and our affiliates have been calling for a workplace standard since March, and this order is a critical first step to a comprehensive plan that will keep us safe on the job.” The AFL-CIO leader concluded: “Now, we must win strong safety and health provisions in the next coronavirus relief package and rebuild OSHA, MSHA and the entire Labor Department with a renewed commitment to workplace safety.” OSHA is the federal workplace health and safety regulator and MSHA its mining equivalent.
AFL-CIO statement. Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, President Joseph R Biden Jr, 21 January 2021.
National strategy for the Covid-19 response and pandemic preparedness, President Joseph R Biden Jr, 21 January 2021.


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