Trade unions are calling on the government to update workplace safety rules, published in the first lockdown, to protect workers from new strains of Covid-19.
The TUC says the scientific understanding of how the virus spreads has changed and that the UK is now battling a strain that is far more easily transmitted. It says safety rules have not been fully updated and that this is putting essential workers and those unable to work from home at risk.
Covid-19 health and safety
General secretary Frances O’Grady said: “With new strains of coronavirus spreading like wildfire, workplace safety rules must catch up. We have a much better understanding of how people catch Covid-19 now than when the rules were written.
“Airborne transmission is the biggest danger. But little has been done to update safety rules in response. Too many workers are still in indoor spaces without adequate ventilation, or proper social distancing from other staff or customers.”
The TUC says that current protective measures recommended for many, particularly public-facing workers, are inadequate and is calling on the government to urgently update workplace safety guidance to:
- Reduce the number of people permitted in a space at any one time to aid ventilation and social distancing
- Require the wearing of face coverings in all indoor workplaces, except for those workers who are exempt
- Return to the “gold standard” of 2m social distancing wherever possible
- Require any work activity that can be completed safely outside to be conducted outside
- Set a safety threshold for ventilation of indoor workplaces with outside air – the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) recommends at least 10 litres of outside air in offices per second per person
- Update guidance on workplace face coverings to the World Health Organisation standard of three protective layers, and
- Expand the number of jobs where workers should use FFP3 face masks, removing 99% of particles.
Employers who do not update risk assessments in light of the new strains may be breaking the law said the TUC.
The TUC is calling on the government to launch a major communications campaign for employers, workers and customers to cut the risks to essential workers and those working outside the home.
O’Grady added: “The government must update the rules on ventilation, masks, limits on numbers and social distancing in workplaces. Nobody should be put at unnecessary risk because safety policy is behind the science, and unfit to cope with new Covid-19 strains.
“Employers must redo their risk assessments now, and make sure all workers and customers are following the rules to keep everyone safe. And ministers should take a stronger lead on ensuring employers do the right thing to protect workers and control the virus.”
She added that inspections by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) must increase dramatically, to root out dangerous practice that spreads the virus.
An HSE spokesperson told Personnel Today: “The guidance on our website and the Safer Workplaces guidance on gov.uk has been under frequent review as the pandemic has evolved.
“We’ve consistently urged employers to carry out a robust risk assessment to manage coronavirus risk, underpinned by the guidance to which we contributed. Adequate control measures should protect against airborne transmission. Employers should keep their risk assessment under review. They must also consult and involve people on the steps they are taking to manage the risk of coronavirus in their workplace.
“Essential work, and work that can only be done in the workplace, will continue. We are therefore further enhancing our spot-check and inspection programme, which has consistently increased in scale and scope throughout the pandemic.”