UK’s plans to reopen workplaces: what are unions’ concerns?

Ministers have shared seven documents with employer groups and trade unions on how some companies could ask staff to return to their workplaces. However, unions are worried about many aspects of the draft advice produced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Using physical barriers and PPE

Employers who cannot guarantee gaps of 2 metres between workers will be advised that physical barriers can be used, like the screens used to protect supermarket checkout workers. Other ideas include floor markings to encourage people to space out, and people working facing away from each other. The documents also float the use of more personal protective equipment (PPE), such as goggles, face masks and gloves, without being specific about how that would work. Staff should be advised to avoid sharing equipment, including pens.

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Concerns: Trade unions are worried about the lack of public scientific guidance about what circumstances make physical barriers as effective as physical distancing. Likewise, they want more detail on who should be wearing PPE, and when and how they can get access to it.

Limiting close working to 15 minutes

Public Health England (PHE) has long said the risk of contracting the coronavirus is lower if interactions are limited to 15 minutes, but more emphasis may be placed on this advice so that brief meetings are possible.

Concerns: Prospect is one of the unions questioning this advice, asking for the scientific evidence to be published on why 15 minutes is considered an acceptable period of time. The advice appears to be based on the theory that the risk of contracting coronavirus increases the longer someone stays in the presence of an infected colleague, but it is not clear why 15 minutes is used as the cut-off point.

Frequent cleaning and better hygiene measures

The guidance is vague on this issue, suggesting employers could consider more deep cleaning without setting out minimum standards that everyone would have to abide by. It also proposes more hygiene measures, such as making hand sanitiser available at exits and entries, and near frequently touched places such as lifts.

Concerns: There are worries about the lack of specific instructions on how surfaces should be kept clean, the type of disinfectants that should be used and frequency of cleaning. At the moment, the guidance seems to leave this up to employers’ discretion.

Staggering start times

One option for those who do have to go into work could be shifts, to avoid too many people being in the office at once, and so that public transport is not too crowded. Guidance includes asking companies to limit the number of people sharing lifts, with graphics showing how they could be divided into one-person sections.

Concerns: The rail unions are very unhappy at talk of greatly increased train services by the week beginning 11 May, as they do not think adequate safety provisions have been made for passengers and staff to be able to maintain distancing. This is likely to be a particular problem on the London tube, where carriages are usually overcrowded.

Risk assessments

The government will require all firms with more than five people to produce a written risk assessment showing they have thought through all the health and safety consequences of asking people to return to the workplace.

Concerns: Unions would like to see each firm asked to publish their risk assessments so employees and the wider public can see their workings about the risks they are asking staff to take. The TUC would also like to see the Health and Safety Executive have some powers to enforce safe working conditions, rather than companies being asked to follow non-binding guidance.

Protecting the vulnerable

Shielded people who are “extremely clinically vulnerable” would not be required to work outside the home. But vulnerable people, including pregnant women, people with many underlying health conditions and the over-70 , would still be allowed to work outside their homes. Employers would only be asked to take extra care with physical distancing measures for them where possible.

Concerns: Unions want stronger protections for vulnerable people to be able to stay at home or ask to be furloughed to avoid situations where they are at risk. They are concerned at the number of opt-outs for employers, who can argue they are making reasonable adjustments while still asking their vulnerable employees to come into the office, often by public transport.

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