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




Government creates illusion of Covid-19 safety spot checks

The government is talking workplace safety “without actually doing anything about it,” the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors’ union Prospect has charged. Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy, responding to reports that HSE is carrying out no physical spot checks and has no date set for their restart, said: “Last week the government said that HSE would be conducting spot checks on businesses before they reopen for business [Risks 947]. It seems that it neglected to check if HSE would actually be able to visit businesses while keeping its own workers safe. Prospect members in HSE, who have been working throughout this crisis, have indicated that initially the majority of spot checks will be done via telephone rather than visit which raises questions as to their effectiveness.” The Prospect leader added: “Ten years of cuts to HSE have left it in the position that it doesn’t have enough inspectors to effectively police health and safety standards across the entire economy. The additional funding announced last week will be largely spent on call centres and will have no impact on the numbers of qualified inspectors. It increasingly looks like the government wishes to get people back to work while appearing to take their safety seriously but without actually doing anything about it.” The ‘i’ newspaper reported on 17 May that “the Health and Safety Executive is not carrying out inspections and has no confirmed date to restart them.” Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, slammed the ‘self-policing’ strategy and demanded the government do more to protect workers as lockdown conditions ease. “Self-policing is just spin for no policing,” she said. “Employers must take full responsibility for staff safety, conducting and publishing risk assessments, and meeting the new safety guidelines. But they should also be subject to spot checks and penalties to incentivise compliance.”
Prospect news release. i news. The Guardian.

Studies cast doubt on Covid-19 restart safety assurances

A light breeze can spread a viral plume over 6 metres in under two seconds, a new study has shown, casting doubt on claims Covid-19 risks are insignificant in construction and other outdoor work. The findings come as US and UK researchers have warned that apparently healthy ‘presymptomatic and asymptomatic’ individuals can present a significant infection risk. Much of the UK construction industry has now returned to work after the government gave the OK for a restart. However, a study published online this week in the journal Physics of Fluids and that modelled the effect of wind speed on ‘saliva droplets disease-carrier particles from a human cough’ noted: “Our findings imply that depending on the environmental conditions, the 2m social distance may not suffice.” Senior author Dimitris Drikakis noted: “Two metres does not suffice if you are in an open space.” He added: “Two metres is okay if there is no wind or very little, but beyond that situation, saliva droplets can travel a considerable distance.” Relying on self-reporting of illness or on temperature testing, measures used on many construction sites, are not reliable indicators of infection risk, two new studies have warned. “We describe evidence that supports the concept of transmission while presymptomatic and asymptomatic, which we found during a rapid literature review conducted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in early April 2020,” a paper in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases notes. A UK hospital-based study reached the same conclusion, recommending “comprehensive screening of HCWs [health care workers] with minimal or no symptoms.” Another study this month warned there was evidence that normal speech may present an infection risk, with the paper in the Human Genomics journal noting “infected individuals represent emission sources of aerosol generated by routine behaviours - such as breathing, speaking, singing, coughing, sneezing, and resuspension activity - all of which might be capable of transmitting disease.”
Talib Dbouk and Dimitris Drikakis. On coughing and airborne droplet transmission to humans, Physics of Fluids, volume 32, issue 5, published online 19 May 2020.
Furukawa NW, Brooks JT, Sobel J. Evidence supporting transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 while presymptomatic or asymptomatic, Emerging Infectious Diseases, volume 26, number 7, July 2020.
Lucy Rivett and others. Screening of healthcare workers for SARS-CoV-2 highlights the role of asymptomatic carriage in COVID-19 transmission, CITIID-NIHR COVI Bioresource Collaboration, medRxiv, published online 15 May 2020.
Krystal J Godri Pollitt and others. COVID-19 vulnerability: the potential impact of genetic susceptibility and airborne transmission, Human Genomics volume 14, article number 17, published online 12 May 2020.
Working safely during coronavirus (Covid-19): Construction and other outdoor work, BEIS, updated 19 May 2020. All government guides by sector.

Almost all teachers concerned at school opening plans

The government must provide the scientific evidence to justify the decision to reopen some schools from 1 June, the teaching union NASUWT has said. It warned that teachers ‘remain far from unconvinced’ that reopening can be safely or practicably achieved by this date. In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said the government should provide the scientific evidence and modelling it has relied on in making its decision. NASUWT said the lack of confidence and the high level of concern of teachers about the government’s plans for schools have been highlighted by its snapshot survey, to which nearly 29,000 responses were received from members in just four days. Almost all (95 per cent) teachers expressed concern and anxiety about the government’s plans for the wider reopening of schools. A similar proportion (92 per cent) did not feel reassured by the government’s announcements that it will be safe for more pupils to return from 1 June, and 85 per cent said they did not think it will be safe to return by then, with the same percentage saying they believed that social distancing will not be possible to achieve or will present a major issue in schools. The NASUWT leader said: “The results of our survey underscore the fact that the government has thus far failed to win the trust and confidence of teachers about the safety of reopening schools. It is now imperative that the government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking.” Media reports suggest the government plans have been thrown into doubt, as a growing number of local authorities have indicated they do not support school reopening on 1 June or would not require schools to do so.
NASUWT news release and call on the government to release the scientific evidence. BBC News Online. Morning Star. The Guardian and related editorial and article on the local authority ‘rebellion’.

NEU calls for openness on school reopening plan

The government must make public the evidence informing its plan to start reopening schools on 1 June, the teaching union NEU has said. The union was commenting after Boris Johnson said 25,000 contact tracers, able to track 10,000 new cases a day, would be in place by 1 June. The prime minster told the Commons on 20 May: “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1.” However, critics have queried whether it would be possible to get a fully-functioning system in place by then, with media reports describing ‘shambolic’ online training sessions for the new tracers and problems with the tracing app. The government's deputy chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean previously said an effective system for tracing new coronavirus cases needed to be in place before lockdown restrictions could be changed. Commenting on the prime minister’s assurance, NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “We are pleased the prime minister is listening to our concern about having contact tracing working before wider school opening. We have received no private assurances on this matter and we would like to see the contact tracing actually in place before schools do start adding to the R rate.” He added: “We would urge the prime minister to respond to our other points including that all of the science considered by SAGE around school opening questions should be put in the public domain and they should engage with the trades unions in negotiations about how to open schools safely.” On 21 May, the NHS Confederation said time was running out to finalise a test, track and trace strategy to avoid a possible second surge in coronavirus cases. The confederation, which represents health and care leaders, said lockdown measures should not be eased until a clear plan is in place.
NEU news release and related news release. NHS Confederation news release and letter to health secretary Matt Hancock. BBC News Online and related story. The Guardian.

School support staff say 1 June reopening ‘unrealistic’

Reopening schools on 1 June is unrealistic as key safety tests have not been met, UNISON has warned. Responding to Department for Education (DfE) guidance on the reopening of primary schools and nurseries (Risks 947) and to meetings held on 15 May between unions, officials and government scientists on the risk of coronavirus transmission by children, UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “Safety for staff and pupils has to be the number one priority. Yet the DfE guidance has a number of holes, and the government has neither met unions’ safety tests nor its own. That’s why the beginning of June for reopening is unrealistic. The guidance encourages schools to use support staff to fill gaps if teachers aren’t there. While more senior teaching assistants can do this, there’s a danger that others could be exploited.” He said while the meetings with scientists and officials were useful, “questions remain around the capacity for schools to be able to fully test, trace and isolate children and school staff. Many support staff come from backgrounds that put them at greater risk if they’re infected with Covid-19. Workers including teaching assistants, cleaners and school meals staff mustn’t be put in danger just because the government is in a hurry to get schools running again.”
UNISON news release.

EIS lays ‘red lines’ before Scottish school can reopen

Unresolved ‘challenges’ must be overcome before any Scottish schools reopen, the teaching union EIS has said. Over 26,000 EIS members – including teachers from every local authority in Scotland – took part in a survey which identified solid support for the union’s ‘red lines’. The union survey found 95 per cent of teachers agreed with the conditions that the EIS has identified to be met before schools can safely re-open, with 69 per cent 'strongly agreeing' with the EIS's red lines. These conditions include an established capacity to 'test, trace and isolate', effective implementation of all health and safety guidelines such as social distancing in schools, and evidence that Covid-19 infection is under control and that schools are safe places to teach and learn. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Teachers remain concerned by the prospect of schools potentially re-opening before it is safe to do so, and strongly agree with the need for suitable protections to be put in place prior to any re-opening of schools."
EIS news release.

University reopening plans ‘only adding to confusion’

The government needs to step in and underwrite fees and teaching grants lost by universities and universities must in turn promise to work together on plans for safely reopening, lecturers’ union UCU has said. Plans from universities to either ban face-to-face lectures, try blended learning and to try and reopen fully in September are only adding to the confusion for students, the union said. Responding to the news that the University of Cambridge plans to have all its lectures next year online, while the University of Bolton plans to reopen in September, the UCU said it had warned previously that if the government did not provide emergency funding to cover income lost through fees, then it risked prompting unhealthy competition between universities for students. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'We have now seen a few universities set out plans for the next academic year and there is no consistency. This only adds to the confusion for students and for staff, and does not suggest their health and safety is the top priority. Unfortunately, we warned this would happen if the government refused to encourage more effective coordination and provide financial support.” The UCU leader added: “Before universities can reopen we need to see much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing and comprehensive testing. We can't simply promise to go back to business as usual. Any plans must also extend beyond the lecture theatre and explain how universities will deal with things like peak times, narrow corridors and socialising.” Public sector union UNISON has also called on the government to provide extra funding to save universities and colleges from crisis.
UCU news release. UNISON news release and Protect higher education campaign.

Tube drivers sent home after raising safety concerns

At least 30 Tube drivers were sent home from work on 18 May after they expressed concerns about their safety and that of their passengers, their union said, as more people returned to work after the coronavirus lockdown was eased in England. Train drivers’ union ASLEF accused the government of regarding Transport for London (TfL) workers as “nothing more than collateral damage” after rail and Tube operators increased services this week. An ASLEF spokesperson said 30 drivers had raised their concerns over health and safety before being sent home. On 15 May, the union advised its members of their right to refuse to work “in circumstances where they are at risk of serious and imminent danger.” Ahead of increase in services, ASLEF’s organiser Finn Brennan said: “Despite our objections, London Underground has insisted that, from next week, train drivers revert to working as they did before the Covid-19 crisis. They are being told they can no longer continue to work in the safer way that they have been working over the last six weeks. This is because the government is insisting that Transport for London maximises the service it operates, regardless of the implications for driver safety. Forty-two TfL workers have already lost their lives to this dreadful disease. The government appears to regard them as nothing more than collateral damage.” In a tweet on Monday morning, he noted: “Bizarre situation this morning where Underground managers are sending home drivers who raise H&S [health and safety] concerns… meaning fewer drivers available… so fewer trains!”
ASLEF news release. The Independent.

RMT calls for binding Covid-19 rail transport rules

Rail union RMT is calling for new compulsory protections for passengers and rail workers on trains. Commenting as the increased rail service timetable came into effect on 18 May, the union said there must be compulsory 2-metre social distancing, reflecting official guidance to the public. RMT also called for the compulsory wearing of face masks by passengers. It said masks should also be provided for free at stations, with provision for their safe disposal. The union pointed out that Eurostar passengers are already required to wear masks. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “We are opposed to the early relaxation of lockdown measures and believe that non-essential workers should avoid using trains. When people absolutely must use a train there should be two new compulsory protections.” He explained: “Firstly there should be compulsory 2-metre social distancing on all trains. It is baffling that the government are telling the public to observe 2-metre social distancing in open spaces outdoors but not enforce 2-metre social distancing on trains, whose confined spaces mean there is a greater risk of infection. Secondly there should be compulsory wearing of face masks which should be provided for free. It is mystifying that there is a requirement for passengers on Eurostar services in the UK to wear masks but not on other UK rail services. We have the crazy situation of Eurostar passengers arriving with masks on [services] into St Pancras but then not wearing masks when they transfer to the Tube or other rail services.”
RMT news release.  Morning Star.

Answers needed on high rates of Covid-19 in BAME workers

Transport union RMT has written to industry bosses and safety regulators seeking ‘answers and protections’ to address the high rates of Covid-19 in Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers in the transport sector. The union said it has reminded employers that there is ‘concrete evidence’ regarding the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME workers and has raised a series of questions with transport bosses and safety regulators. These include whether companies have sought advice on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME workers and whether they are monitoring this issue. The union has also asked companies what measures they are considering to protect BAME employees from Covid-19. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “Concrete evidence is continually emerging that shows that BAME people are far more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people. We have therefore written to all transport employers and safety regulators asking them what actions they are taking; that includes determining what is happening at the workplace and identifying the protections that can be implemented.” He added: “RMT will use every means at our disposal to protect our members.”
RMT news release.

Belly Mujinga’s death has ‘touched the nation’

Rail union TSSA has said it has been ‘overwhelmed’ by the response to the death last week of union member Belly Mujinga from Covid-19 (Risks 947). Belly was working as a ticket office clerk at London’s Victoria Station when she and a colleague were spat and coughed at on the concourse by a man claiming to have the infection. Belly – who had an underlying health problem – contracted Covid-19 and died in hospital, leaving her husband and 11-year-old daughter. The story attracted a national and international response. Last week the Boris Johnson started prime minister’s questions by saying: “Yesterday this House learnt of the tragic death of Belly Mujinga. The fact that she was abused while doing her job is utterly appalling. My thoughts, and I’m sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with her family.” This was followed by opposition leader Keir Starmer saying: “I send my condolences to the families of all of those who have lost their lives due to coronavirus, including the family of Belly Mujinga, as the PM referenced, she was a ticket officer who we learned this week died of Covid-19 in awful circumstances.” TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes commented: “Belly’s story has touched the nation and has travelled across the world. The protection of transport and all frontline workers is absolutely essential. These are the people who have kept our country moving through the worst of the pandemic and that’s why I’ve written to the prime minister asking for the compensation scheme currently available to NHS staff to be extended to transport workers.” He added: “Belly’s is one of too many sad stories of people losing their lives. We now want the best protections and safest workplaces for all workers to prevent anyone catching this terrible disease.”
TSSA news release.

London transport advice and funding a mess

The government is at ‘sixes and sevens’ over its London transport policy and plans to get commuters back to work, Unite has said. The union said that the £1.6bn government bailout - a combination of grant and loans -  for Transport for London (TfL), after the dramatic slump in passenger numbers, had too onerous conditions attached to it, such as the reintroduction of congestion charges and that the funding was only for four months. Unite London regional secretary Pete Kavanagh said: “There are two key issues here – the short term and, often contradictory, government advice to get people back to work in London and the long-term financing of the London transport system, once the pandemic is over.” He added: “The advice from the government to the anxious travelling public is at ‘sixes and sevens’. Ministers are urging a return to work, but then saying avoid public transport, if you can. This is very difficult to do if you are commuting into London from across the south east and also social distancing in those circumstances would be almost impossible. It is no wonder people are confused by the contradictory advice.” Kavanagh said “it should not be forgotten that 33 bus workers in London have died from Covid-19 and we, therefore, warmly welcome TfL asking the UCL Institute of Health Equity to advise on an independent review into coronavirus infections and deaths among London’s bus workers.”
Unite news release. TfL news release. Evening Standard.

Bereavement scheme extended after backlash

A bereavement scheme set up to support the families of workers who die of coronavirus has been extended to the families and dependants of all NHS support staff and social care workers. The Home Office made the announcement following criticism from unions and others that care workers, cleaners and porters had been left out of the scheme, which only applied to certain occupations including nurses, biochemists and radiographers. The union GMB had described the situation as “heartless” and an “outrageous scandal.” Announcing the shift, home secretary Priti Patel said: “When I announced the introduction of the bereavement scheme in April, I said we would continue to work across government to look at ways to offer further support. Today we are extending the scheme to NHS support staff and social care workers. We want to ensure families have the support they need and so this will be effective immediately and retrospectively.” Unions have argued the scheme should apply to all key workers.
Home Office news release. GMB news release. Evening Standard.

G4S sick pay fails prison officers at high virus risk

Private prison operator G4S is failing to give guarantees on sick pay for prison officers -revealed as among the most likely workers to die from Covid-19 - their union GMB has said. An analysis this month by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed prison workers are a high risk occupational group for the infection. GMB said despite this G4S - which runs prisons including Altcourse in Liverpool and Rye Hill in Northamptonshire - refuses to give guarantees that staff forced to self-isolate or take time off sick due to coronavirus will get full pay. This could leave many to languish on statutory sick pay of just £95 a week, the union said, once they have exceeded any contractual sick pay arrangements. It added this failure to give a ‘cast iron guarantee’ of full pay not only puts more prison officers at risk, but raises the danger to inmates at a time when prison transmission is on the increase. If staff cannot afford to take time off to self-isolate they may continue to work, GMB said. GMB national officer Nadine Houghton said: “Prison officers should not be forced to come to work if they are at risk of spreading Covid-19, equally as workers more likely to contract it they should also know that they won't be forced into poverty if they do.” She added: “GMB demands full sick pay guaranteed from day one for all those forced to self-isolate or take time off due to Covid-19.”
GMB news release.

Care home deaths expose ‘unfit’ social care system

New Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing UK care home deaths linked to coronavirus have now exceeded 10,000 show the social care system is ‘unfit for purpose’ and needs a ‘complete overhaul’. More than 11,600 people have died from coronavirus in care homes across the UK since the start of the pandemic, the ONS figures show. UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “These deaths show the government’s failure to support those in society who are most in need of care.” She added: “Staff looking after these residents have effectively been abandoned too. They’ve struggled with protective equipment shortages, testing delays and inadequate guidance on how to keep themselves safe. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed a social care system that’s unfit for purpose. A complete overhaul is needed once the pandemic passes to ensure no one is left unprotected again.”
UNISON news release. ONS care home statistics. BBC News Online. The Guardian.

A full return of parliament could put MPs and staff at risk

A government plan for parliament to return to normal operation from the start of June has been condemned by a civil service union. Prospect said the announcement by Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, risked “putting MPs and staff at risk.” Parliament has been sitting in hybrid form, with some parliamentarians present in the House, but most participating remotely via video link. Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, said unions representing staff in parliament had the day before Rees-Mogg’s announcement offered “to work with the government on a phased return to a physical parliament between now and the summer. It is incredibly disappointing that the government have chosen to ignore the voice of staff and impose a full return to parliament in two weeks, including physical voting, that will mean hundreds of people packed into parliament’s narrow corridors putting MPs and staff at risk.” He added: “The government’s argument about why this is necessary falls apart under even the slightest scrutiny given the impact that social distancing will have on the ability of a physical parliament to hold the government to account. Following the recent harassment scandals staff were given reassurances that their wellbeing would be put first at all times, unfortunately the government has failed the first test of making good on that promise.” An opposition amendment challenging the plan was not selected for debate, so went unheard.
Prospect news release and related news release. Morning Star.

Warning on deadly Legionnaires’ risk on return to work

Businesses have been warned to flush out the water supply in their building before they reopen as potentially deadly Legionella bacteria may have built up in water systems during the coronavirus lockdown. The Public Health England (PHE) guidance came on the heels of workplace hygiene experts this month warning “all of the processes that are there to keep people safe from harmful exposures to chemicals, biological agents and other hazards have not been in operation,” creating serious return to work risks including Legionnaires’ disease (Risks 947). PHE warned this week that dormant water systems would result in bacterial growth, particularly during periods of warm weather, which could pose a threat to the public. Legionella bacteria is naturally present in water systems and causes Legionnaires’ disease - a form of severe pneumonia which is fatal in 10 per cent of cases. Water systems that have not been used during the UK’s lockdown pose a “potential health risk” due to the bacteria, PHE said. PHE guidance said “regular flushing” of water systems was required during lockdown to prevent the growth of bacteria. It added that all organisations with a water supply which were currently shut down would need to take action, but singled-out dental practices, hairdressers, gyms and hotels as being particularly at risk.
PHE guidance. The Independent.

5G conspiracy related abuse must be reported

Telecommunications sector field engineers are being reminded by their union of the ‘paramount importance’ of ensuring any abusive behaviour they encounter in the course of their duties is formally reported and logged – especially where it relates to ‘fake news’ that coronavirus is being spread by the rollout of 5G. The communications union CWU said: “Six weeks after that absurd conspiracy theory began with a widely shared video on social media, feedback received by the CWU suggests the number of engineers being subjected to threatening behaviour by members of the public continues to escalate – despite concerted efforts to quash the groundless rumour by the CWU, Ofcom, health experts, politicians and the mainstream media.” The union said so far 76 Openreach engineers had reported abuse, the ‘vast majority’ while conducting work that had nothing whatsoever to do with 5G. “The majority of attacks have occurred in urban locations, typically involving verbal tirades being hurled at engineers working in the street, normally by individuals in cars,” said CWU assistant secretary Dave Jukes. “However, in an environment where a small minority of mindless individuals feel able to lash out at key workers who are doing their utmost to keep the UK’s vital communications infrastructure up and running at a time of national crisis, the fear is that it is only a matter of time before we witness an actual physical assault. That’s why it’s essential that every single incident is formally reported and logged, so that patterns and locations of attacks can be analysed.” Jukes advised members: “Where appropriate, do not hesitate to ring 999 –  but, even with less serious cases of verbal abuse or hostility, make sure the incident is formally recorded using the established accident reporting process, and that your manager is aware of what has happened.”
CWU news release.

East Sussex fire authority faces backlash over cuts

East Sussex fire authority has been deluged with concerns from firefighters and members of the public, as a campaign against sweeping fire and rescue service cuts in the county gathers pace. More than 14,000 concerned residents have signed a petition calling on members of the fire authority to reject the proposed cuts, which the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says will “decimate” the county’s fire service. An FBU analysis has established the county will lose 10 fire engines, at least 30 wholetime firefighters and up to 60 on-call firefighters as a result of the cuts. The FBU points out that firefighters in East Sussex and across the country have taken on huge new areas of work to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, including driving ambulances, delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) to NHS and care staff, and delivering medicines and food to vulnerable people. Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “Residents are applauding key workers each Thursday while their fire authority attempts to dismantle their fire and rescue service. It’s both dangerous and utterly tone deaf. It’s heartening to see so many residents speak out against these savage cuts. Our members across the country stand with their East Sussex colleagues. Working together, firefighters and residents can stop these unsafe plans.”
FBU news release.

Union campaign for safe fashion retail after Covid-19

As shops around the world roll up their shutters and open their doors, unions for the retail sector are kicking off a global campaign for a safe return to work in fashion retail shops. The campaign, coordinated by the global union UNI, supports its new guidelines to help its union affiliates negotiate in-store measures to protect retail workers, customers, and external vendors in the wake of Covid-19. UNI said it developed its standards for a safe return to work in fashion retail based on criteria set by several unions, particularly those in the UK, Sweden, Italy, and Spain. The guidelines cover cleaning and disinfecting, personal protective equipment, scheduling, customer behaviour, and social distancing in stores. They also emphasise the vital role of union health and safety committees in enforcing these standards. “We cannot reopen our shops and our economies without taking steps to minimise the risk of another outbreak,” said Christy Hoffman, the UNI general secretary. “For retail to successfully rebound, workers and customers must feel safe while shopping, and these guidelines, enforced by unions on the ground, help secure a safe and sanitary retail environment.”
UNI news release, guide and graphic summary.

Return to safe workplaces – new TUC guide

If employers want workers to return to their normal place of work, they must make sure it’s done safely, to protect the health of workers, customers and the public. A new TUC Education online publication gives a step-by-step how-to guide. It goes in turn through Covid-19-specific risk assessments, employers’ duties, consultation, and steps to address risks to all workers, including vulnerable workers, and to get approval for plans before going ahead. It also goes through the need to communicate the Covid-19 plan to the workforce, and for employers to publish their workplace plan on the company website. There’s lots more, and it is easy to navigate – have a look.
Return to safe workplaces, TUC Education, May 2020.



Global: UN rights experts say ‘no worker is expendable’

As countries begin to ease restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, UN human rights experts are calling on governments and businesses to ensure all workers are protected from exposure to Covid-19. In a joint statement, 16 UN human rights special rapporteurs and UN working group leaders note: “No worker is expendable. Every worker is essential, no matter what category is applied to them by states or businesses. Every worker has the right to be protected from exposure to hazards in the workplace, including the coronavirus.” The statement adds: “We are concerned at the number of frontline workers who have not been given adequate protection during peak periods of contagion in various countries and economic sectors. And as governments continue to reduce restrictions and workers begin to return to work, we urge all States and businesses to ensure preventative and precautionary measures are in place to protect every worker. We are also deeply concerned about the disproportionate risk presented to workers that are low-income, minorities, migrants, older persons and those with pre-existing health conditions, women, as well as the informal sector and those in the ‘gig’ economy.” The statement concludes: “We urge states and businesses to work with labour unions and other worker representatives to help ensure necessary safeguards are in place… Our message today is simple, but crucial: every worker must be protected, no matter what.”
OHCHR news release. IUF news release.

Global: Meat plant line speeds speed up Covid-19 spread

Despite US president Donald Trump's 27 April executive order requiring meat plants to remain open, 47 meat and poultry plants were temporarily closed as of 11 May due to the rapid spread of infections through their workforce. Confirmed Covid-19 cases jumped 40 per cent in the week after the executive order in US counties with major beef or pork slaughterhouses, compared with a 19 per cent rise nationally. According to the global food and farming union federation, IUF, at least 30 meat workers have died and thousands have been infected. Two meatpacking plants in Alberta, Canada, have given rise to nearly one in six of the provinces 3,400 cases of Covid-19. Significant outbreaks have occurred at meatpacking facilities in Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Ireland and Spain, and continue to spread, it says, adding the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 quickly spreads from worker to worker because high line speeds require workers to stand in close proximity. According to IUF: “To mitigate the spread of the virus and to save lives, slaughter and processing lines must be slowed to enable physical distancing, and meat workers must be provided with the highest level of protective equipment. Strict monitoring of safety procedures must be constantly enforced by labour inspectors. Mandatory daily testing and contact tracing are essential measures for combatting the spread of the virus among workers and in their communities.” The global food union adds: “IUF affiliates are insisting on stronger safety measures and full income protection for those infected, quarantined or laid off.” President Trump’s Department of Labor has been accused of ‘collaborating’ with the meatpacking giants in efforts to protect the firms from legal liability for Covid-19 deaths.
IUF news release and news release on the Canadian outbreaks. Philadephia Inquirer. Huffpost.

USA: Call for more return to work protection

As US states consider reopening and Americans head back to work, there is still no federal mandate in place to prevent the transmission of airborne viruses. Instead, politically powerful industries like meat processing plants aren’t operating under any federal controls, only voluntary guidance. Democrats and labour advocates say the federal agency in charge of worker safety – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA - has been silent since the pandemic began – and they want the regulator to step up. “Covid-19 has become a massive worker safety crisis,” said David Michaels, who was the director of OSHA during the Obama presidency. Michaels, who is an epidemiology professor at George Washington University, says the idea of worker safety isn’t a luxury. Getting it wrong could hurt the recovery effort, he said. “Worker safety is the fulcrum which has been determined whether or not we can open up the economy safely or if we’ll have thousands more deaths and have to close it back up again,” Michaels told ABC News. Unions say the federal public health body, CDC, and OSHA are approaching the issue wrongly. “This isn’t just about infection control, which is how the CDC looks at it, this is about exposure assessment,” said Rebecca Reindel, safety director at the national union federation AFL-CIO. “You look at how people are exposed. Your main source of exposure is other people and so where you’re mainly running into other people right now is the workplace.”
ABC News.

USA: Unions sue safety watchdog for a coronavirus law

The US national union federation AFL-CIO has filed a petition in the US Court of Appeals to compel the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) protecting workers against the coronavirus. AFL-CIO said its petition demonstrates that thousands of workers have been infected on the job through exposure to infected patients, co-workers and unscreened members of the public. It argues as the economy reopens and people return to work, person-to-person contact will increase and health experts predict the already ‘shocking’ number of infections and deaths among workers will rise. “It’s truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organisation tasked with protecting our health and safety,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. “But we’ve been left no choice. Millions are infected and nearly 90,000 have died, so it’s beyond urgent that action is taken to protect workers who risk our lives daily to respond to this public health emergency. If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to.” The AFL-CIO and several of its affiliated unions have pursued worker protections for years, petitioning OSHA to adopt a general infectious disease standard as early as 2009 in the wake of SARS and other threatened pandemics, and the agency initiated rule-making procedures. A standard was near completion when Donald Trump was elected, but his administration quickly abandoned the standard-setting process.

AFL-CIO news release.


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