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Coronavirus UK: Business leaders warn health and safety demands will be ‘a challenge’

Employees legally do not have to return to their workplace if they feel their company has not done enough to keep them safe from coronavirus, union leaders have said.

The Trades Union Congress said existing laws already protect employees in Britain who have a legal right to refuse to work if the risks are ‘serious and imminent’.

And the GMB union has called for firms to carry out a ‘full risk assessment agreed with each worker’ and the supply of the necessary private protective equipment. 

Union-appointed health and safety inspectors will check if offices, factories, shops and other workplaces have been redesigned to ensure social distancing or check that shifts are staggered and that staff are not sharing equipment such as pens.

The GMB union has also said it will take at least two weeks for most firms to reopen – despite the Prime Minister hoping tens of thousands of workers will return tomorrow.

Meanwhile business leaders have warned protecting staff and customers will be a ‘big challenge’ as workplaces are modified due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes after the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (Beis) unveiled workplace guidance for eight sectors of the economy yesterday.

The TUC said employees should initially talk to their colleagues and union if they are worried about safety, and ask their employer to rectify any concerning issues.

Staff can then report persisting problems to the Health and Safety Executive, and may also have the right to leave work depending on the specific circumstances.

The Government has set out guidelines for swathes of the economy to get them back to work

The relevant law is section 44 of the Employment Act 1996, while section 100 protects workers from detriment for asserting their right to safety.

A TUC spokesman added: ‘If you are considering refusing to work because of a serious and imminent danger, know that you are not alone.

What is the relevant UK law for refusing to work due to safety concerns?

The key law is Section 44 of the Employment Act 1996, with parts ‘d’ and ‘e’ especially important. It says:

An employee has the right not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by his employer done on the ground that—

(a) having been designated by the employer to carry out activities in connection with preventing or reducing risks to health and safety at work, the employee carried out (or proposed to carry out) any such activities,

(b) being a representative of workers on matters of health and safety at work or member of a safety committee—

  • (i) in accordance with arrangements established under or by virtue of any enactment, or
  • (ii) by reason of being acknowledged as such by the employer, the employee performed (or proposed to perform) any functions as such a representative or a member of such a committee,

(ba) the employee took part (or proposed to take part) in consultation with the employer pursuant to the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 or in an election of representatives of employee safety within the meaning of those Regulations (whether as a candidate or otherwise),]

(c)being an employee at a place where

  • (i) there was no such representative or safety committee, or
  • (ii) there was such a representative or safety committee but it was not reasonably practicable for the employee to raise the matter by those means, he brought to his employer’s attention, by reasonable means, circumstances connected with his work which he reasonably believed were harmful or potentially harmful to health or safety,

(d) in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work, or

(e) in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent, he took (or proposed to take) appropriate steps to protect himself or other persons from the danger.

‘Workers in libraries, the postal service and waste collection have already walked off the job over coronavirus exposure concerns. Be aware, though: all those who have acted have done so with the advice and support of their union.

You need to be able to demonstrate that you have a ‘reasonable belief of serious or imminent danger’. Your union will be able to advise on your specific situation.’

Business leaders have also responded to the new guidance, with Jonathan Geldart, director general of the Institute of Directors, saying: ‘We will be listening carefully to our members on how well these guidelines translate in practice.

‘We hope and expect the guidance to evolve over time, but this is a place for employers to start on the long path to getting the economy going again.

‘Business leaders want to stand on their own two feet, but many can’t operate at anything like normal capacity at the moment, and making adjustments to protect staff and customers will be a big challenge for many workplaces.

‘It’s crucial the government continues to adapt its wider support, a more flexible furlough system and support for company directors is needed urgently.’

Dan Shears, national health, safety and environment director at the GMB union, which has 600,000 members, has claimed that the rules will take at least a fortnight to work through with staff being urged to withdraw their labour if they feel ‘unsafe’. 

Workers have been advised to turn their backs on co-workers, take their own packed lunch and go to the toilet one at a time while innovative construction companies are trialling hard hat tags that vibrate and sound an alarm when workers come closer than two metres, for example.

But union-appointed health and safety inspectors will hold the power and check if offices, factories, shops and other workplaces have been redesigned to ensure social distancing or check that shifts are staggered and that staff are not sharing equipment such as pens, for example.

While employers have a responsibility to keep their safe, there are concerns about the power wielded by unions who have been accused of ‘creating obstacles’ and ‘standing in the way’ of the private sector to prevent the lockdown easing for political reasons and recruit more members.

Labour MPs, including former leader Jeremy Corbyn, have even signed a letter declaring that Boris Johnson has ‘declared a class war’ on blue collar workers by asking them to go back to work.

Mr Shears told the Independent: ‘There’s no legislation around this, but employers have to assess the risk of workers being exposed to Covid-19, and implement ways of reducing that risk to the lowest level that they can achieve.

It came as the Prime Minister admitted ending lockdown will be 'supremely difficult' today as he unveiled an 'exit plan' that could see family and friends reuniting next month

It came as the Prime Minister admitted ending lockdown will be ‘supremely difficult’ today as he unveiled an ‘exit plan’ that could see family and friends reuniting next month

‘In practice, that will require screens, barriers, floor marking, signage, hand sanitiser, face masks and potentially a whole range of other interventions. All of this will take time to procure and set up, so I would suggest at least a week and more likely two weeks, unless the employer had this equipment already in the workplace.’

Meanwhile a GMB spokesman said: ‘GMB believes a phased introduction back to work, that includes a full risk assessment agreed with each worker and the supply of necessary, adequate and correct PPE is essential if we are to avoid a second wave of the pandemic.’

Shaun Graham, senior health and safety officer, GMB London said: ‘NHS and key workers risk their lives daily and that of their loved ones, and in too many cases have lost their lives in pursuit of delivering care and essential services to the nation.

‘Not enough PPE and no social distancing possible being a major contribution of these deaths.

‘Working safely during Covid-19, the government’s latest guidelines on safe working during the pandemic are not enough to deter reckless employers from forcing workers back to work in environments where exposure to Covid-19 is still a very real risk.’

 

 The guidance was provided online for people working in eight areas:

  • Labs and research facilities
  • Restaurants offering takeaway and delivery
  • Offices and contact centres
  • Homes 
  • Vehicles
  • Shops
  • Factories and warehouses
  • Construction sites and other outdoor settings 

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (Beis) unveiled workplace guidance for eight different sectors of the economy today as Boris Johnson took the first baby steps towards restarting the economy.

They set out in detail the steps companies should take to reintroduce staff at work safely, with the most important being staff should stay at home unless their work cannot be done at home and is deemed ‘critical’.

Among the guidance is to carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment, with employers told: ‘You must consult with the health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union or, if there isn’t one, a representative chosen by workers. As an employer, you cannot decide who the representative will be.’

It adds: ‘If possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website and we expect all businesses with over 50 employees to do so. ‘

It comes as trade unions in various sectors including transport and education voice fears about workers being sent back to work too early. 

The Prime Minister today admitted ending lockdown will be ‘supremely difficult’ today as he unveiled an ‘exit plan’ that could see family and friends reuniting next month.

The PM played down expectations of a quick end to the misery for the country, saying going ‘too far and too fast’ risked a devastating second peak.

Ministers said they have consulted with around 250 businesses, trade bodies and unions to agree the plans.

The Government said the new Covid-19 secure guidance will work alongside current health and safety rules, rather than with the introduction of new laws for protecting workers. 

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: ‘This guidance provides a framework to get the UK back to work in a way that is safe for everyone. These are practical steps to enable employers to identify risks that COVID-19 creates and to take pragmatic measures to mitigate them.’ 

British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said: ‘This is a significant step forward in terms of the information available for businesses, who will now need to digest the detail. 

‘The guidance signals big changes for the way that many businesses operate, and some firms will now need time to plan and speak to their employees so that they can return to work safely.

‘Alongside this guidance, businesses urgently need clarity on the future of government support schemes, which must be adapted to help those firms who need to remain closed for an extended period or face reduced capacity or demand’.  

As many people as possible should be working from home with those on site limited to those whose jobs are ‘critical for business and operational continuity, safe facility management, or regulatory requirements’ that cannot be done elsewhere.

They are expected to adhere to the same social distancing rules as elsewhere.

Changes to the usual routine start before staff even arrive, with suggestions of staggered working times, extra facilities for cyclists and runners, and limited numbers in any minibuses used.

Workplaces themselves should open more entrances and exists where possible and consider running a one-way system to reduce congestion, with keypad entry systems turned off.

Where desks cannot be two metres apart from each other, screens should be used to separate staff, and desks should be either side-by-side or facing away from each other.

Hot desking – where more than one person uses a desk at various times during a day or week – should be avoided. 

The advice says meetings should be virtual where they can, but with two metres between people if not, adding: ‘Avoiding transmission during meetings, for example avoiding sharing pens and other objects.’

Even breaks should be staggered to allow people to space out, and canteens should remain shut because of the infection risk, with firms urged to think about ‘providing packaged meals or similar’ and ‘encouraging workers to bring their own food’.

And offices should undergo regular deep cleaning.

Here are some of the key points for each setting:

Offices 

‘For people who work in one place, workstations should allow them to maintain social distancing wherever possible.

‘Workstations should be assigned to an individual and not shared. If they need to be shared they should be shared by the smallest possible number of people.

‘If it is not possible to keep workstations 2m apart then businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate and if so take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission.’

Restaurants (take away and delivery)

Special advice for restaurant includes  asking staff to change into uniforms at work and wash them there rather than taking them home if they can

As few people should be in a kitchen as possible and minimum staff.

 Workstations shoukld be two metres apart if possible, ‘recognising the difficulty of moving equipment such as sinks, hobs and ovens’.

Cleanable panels could be used and floor signs showing a two metre distance. Minimal access should be allowed to ‘walk-in pantries, fridges and freezers, for example, with only one person being able to access these areas at one point in time’.

There should also be ‘minimal contact at ”handover” points with other staff, such as when presenting food to serving staff and delivery drivers’.

Shops

Shops could be asked to take an authoritarian approach to allowing shoppers into their stores.

This could include limiting the number of people in a shop at one time, and demanding children are kept under close control.  

Services with contravene social distancing, like carrying a customer’s heavy shopping, may have to be scrapped.

Shoppers should be encouraged to shop alone where possible.  

Factories and warehouses

This includes manufacturing and chemical plants, food and other large processing plants, warehouses, distribution centres and port operations.

Their advice warns they may have to look at ‘reviewing layouts, line set-ups or processes to allow people to work further apart from each other’.

Construction and other outdoor work

Advice here is on reducing unnecessary movement within building sites. This includes ‘restricting access to some areas, encouraging use of telephones where permitted, and cleaning them between use’.

It also calls for ‘reducing job rotation and equipment rotation, for example, single tasks for the day’ and ‘implementing one-way systems where possible on walkways around the workplace’.

Vehicles 

This includes people working as couriers, mobile workers, lorry drivers, on-site transit, work vehicles and field forces.

The guidance notes: ‘It will not always be possible to keep a distance of two metres inside vehicles. 

‘Many in-vehicle tasks need more than one person, for example heavy deliveries or refuse collection, and changing vehicle configurations to create more space may not be practical.

‘Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff.’

This includes using screens, extra handwashing and limiting the time spend on an assignment.

Homes

People working in homes include: repair services, fitters, meter readers, plumbers, cleaners, cooks and surveyors, plus delivery drivers ‘momentarily at the door’.

It does not apply to nannies working with one family, or their employers.

This group are adviced to travel to work alone if possible, but if they cannot to take steps including: keeping to the same group of people and a limited group, keeping vehicles clean.

Within homes, ‘it will not always be possible to maintain physical distance from customers.

‘If it isn’t possible to maintain social distancing while working in the home then extra attention needs to be paid to equipment, cleaning and hygiene to reduce risk.

‘Working materials, such as tools or domestic appliances, should be assigned to an individual and not shared if possible. If they need to be shared, they should be shared by the smallest possible number of people.’

Labs and research facilities 

The advice notes: ‘It will not always be possible to keep a distance of two metres in labs and R&D facilities that may be designed for close-proximity collaboration.

‘Fixed equipment may mean that changing layouts to create more space may not be practical.

‘Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff.’

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