'No stone left unturned'

How Unite is fighting for a safe return to work for members

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As the UK-wide lockdown continues to ease amid the coronavirus pandemic, more and more people will be asked to return to work. But Unite has vowed from the beginning that no worker should return unless they feel absolutely safe.

 Unite’s health and safety team are now hard at work ensuring that health and safety measures in workplaces across the UK are of the highest standard.

 UniteLIVE this week caught up with Unite national health and safety advisor Rob Miguel to find out what exactly the union was up to as it works to ensure a safe return to work for all.

Risk assessments vital

 “First of all, we’ve been absolutely firm that all workplaces must have risk assessments in place before any return to work occurs,” he said. “Unite has created a suite of health and safety guidelines such as a risk assessment guide that employers can use in conjunction with health and safety reps, which we’ve put online.”

 “We’re also in consultation with various government bodies and advisory committees covering most sectors, trade bodies and our industry partners such as the Joint Industry Board in construction, Rolls –Royce manufacturing and various transport organisations including TFL.  We’re working with these organisations so that jointly agreed health and safety controls measures, procedures and documents are in place for a safe return to work.”

 Miguel also highlighted close working with Unite’s communications department around a campaign to create communication messages and materials such as posters reminding people to wash their hands and maintain social distancing. This includes a film produced by Unite that highlights all the major health and safety issues Unite has identified as people return to work. You can view the film below:

 While Unite believes many workplaces have made great strides in ensuring a safe return to work, the union still has many wider concerns about people returning to work amid a pandemic that’s far from over.

PPE and social distancing

 “In the government’s package of advice with Public Health England (PHE) and other health authorities there’s no provision for PPE outside of a health setting or some specific sectors they’ve nominated such as cleaning, prisons; first line responders, which include for example the fire and police services; and those handling deceased bodies such as in funeral parlors.

 “The advice from government is that PPE is not effective outside of these settings – and we’ve put the question to PHE and HSE as to why that is so. The responses have been varied but recent responses have indicated that PPE is indeed effective.

“Unite believes in line with health and safety law that risk assessment should dictate whether PPE should be selected as part of collective control measures. Current government advice in England, and other devolved countries differ, is that 2m social distancing can be breached in the workplace under certain circumstances. Our position is that 2m should be maintained or solid barriers erected. Given the guidance this may not be the case at all times; in those cases appropriate PPE must be provided as part of a collective regime of control measures.”

Miguel noted that social distancing is a vital infection control measure, but in reality some workers will find themselves in a position where this will be difficult.

“We really need to listen to those workers and understand the position they are being put in, and to insist measures are in place so they are adequately protected,” he added.

 “Our cabin crew reps for example have said in aircraft you’ll have cabin crew in close contact with people in a confined space so being less than 2m away from people at all times is just unavoidable.

“We need to smell the coffee and see how it is actually going to be for our people – if that work goes on then those workers must be protected. That can happen using a range of risk control measures, but if risk remains then PPE should be provided,” he explained. “In some workplaces like factories they’ll have less of a problem, as there are more options such as reconfiguring the workplace and erecting barriers.”

 Even in workplaces where social distancing can be maintained, it should be seen as only one health and safety measure out of many — for example, hygiene controls such as enhanced cleaning and provision of washing facilities is essential. 

“It must be remembered that social distancing relies on people and so is subject to human error,” Miguel said. “While people are working they may forget while concentrating on their work. Take construction for example – they’re lifting, moving, carrying, turning and twisting, and are so enhancing the risk of breaches connected to human error. Social distancing needs to be supported by additional controls such as solid barriers, markings on the floor, signs, tool box talks and training.”

Test, track and trace system

 Miguel welcomed the government developing a test and trace system, which he said will be absolutely vital as part of a widespread safe return to work. But, he added, the system will only work if it’s up and running on a mass scale.

“We absolutely support a test, track and trace system so that people who are confirmed to have the virus and their direct contacts will be taken out of the workplace and asked to self-isolate and therefore mitigate the spread,” Miguel noted. “The concept is to replace the current blanket isolation of millions of  people in their homes for months, with a system that isolates those who present the highest risk of  passing on infection in temporary isolation for one or two weeks.  It will also capture the large cohort of asymptomatic people far better than if we keep the virus invisible and beneath any detection radar.”

The system has proved very successful in countries that have adopted the system, South Korea being typical .The system is also being rolled out in the USA with certain states leading the charge.

 Other developed countries have or will implement this system as they have done successfully in Germany.

 “The issues we will face include putting in place a robust system, which incorporates the right technology and having adequate test and track personnel operating the system, with the right communications mediums,” Miguel continued. “However government must ensure measures are in place for adequate financial support to pay those who have to isolate when traced.”

Schools and public transport

 Other ongoing health and safety concerns for Unite are the issues of childcare and using public transport to return to work.

 “Schools are still by and large closed and now they’re asking people to return to work – it’s a bit backwards isn’t it? Some people will find themselves having to leave children with grandparents and other relatives that they’re not supposed to be having contact with – so this presents itself as a major health issue,” Miguel said.

 “On the issue of public transport, we’re concerned that for people who have no other option but to use public transport to travel to work will be forced to be in contact with large groups of people. We’re urging employers to give their workers travel advice and to provide extra parking spaces for cars and bikes.”

 Above all, Miguel said Unite members should only return to work when they feel absolutely safe.

“Be sure that your workplace has conducted a thorough risk assessment in consultation with the union,” he said. “Our message to reps is that before any return to work, ensure all pre-work checks have been made – this includes deep cleaning of the workplace; and that all the systems have been checked as they may have been off for some time like water, ventilation systems and lifts.”

 “It is vital that the correct procedures are in place to comply with social distancing and hygiene controls – and that must apply throughout the workplace from canteens, to where they work, to where they park. No stone should be left unturned when it comes to health and safety in these unprecedented times.”

 Find out more about your return to work rights and other health and safety issues amid the coronavirus pandemic on our webpage here.

By Hajera Blagg

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