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UNISON safety reps raise serious concerns

Since our last safety update at the start of term, we’ve been consistently pressuring the University to take the national lockdown seriously, by reducing activity on campus as much as possible, reducing the number of support staff required as a result. While we’ve had some engagement from the University on which buildings remain open, which should be placed into “standby” and what this means, there are major failings both in specific departments as well as in the way the increased risks to vulnerable staff are mitigated.

UNISON’s position

It’s become increasingly clear to us in conversations with our members that the current situation does pose unacceptable levels of risk (we give more details of this below). The risks posed to staff who are more vulnerable to the virus, or who live with those who are more vulnerable are particularly acute. We formally lodged the key issues described above with the University in a letter at the end of last week, and received a response from them on Tuesday.

Our advice to members

All members retain the right not to work in an environment they believe to be fundamentally unsafe, and which poses a serious and imminent risk to their safety, or the safety of others. Anyone avoiding an unsafe workplace in these circumstances is protected from dismissal by section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, and from suffering other detriments (such as loss of pay) by section 100 of the Employment Rights Act.

What protects you in these circumstances is your assessment of the risk, the specific circumstances of your role and how it would affect you and those around you, so UNISON cannot directly advise you to take this step. We will however entirely support any member who does and the outline of the situation we have provided below may influence your decision. Any letter along these lines should:

  • Mention your individual circumstances – e.g. if you have a health condition that makes you more vulnerable then mention this, if you live with others (or are responsible for the care of others) who are vulnerable then mention this
  • If you take public transport to work and feel this puts you at greater risk then mention this
  • Mention your safety concerns related to work – for example the numbers of students still using buildings (or the number of children if you work in the nurseries), inability to keep to bubbles etc.. 
  • State that this is a last resort and you really want these concerns to be resolved so you can return
  • Say that you are remaining away from work until safety improves, and that this is in line with your rights under sections 44 and 100 of the employment rights act to remain away from a work environment that poses a serious and imminent risk to your safety. 

Contact us if you would like individual advice or help in drafting a letter. 

Why is the current situation so dangerous? 

The new variant of Covid-19 is between 50-70% more transmissible than previous strains. This is why the government has been forced into another lockdown. While social interactions have been drastically reduced and the rate of new cases are beginning to fall nationally, workplaces have often operated much as they did before, with frontline workers and the lowest paid in particular facing much higher levels of risk than those allowed to work from home. Reducing contacts by remaining home as much as you can is the best way of avoiding catching and spreading the virus.

Universities do still need to conduct essential research, and there will be students who genuinely need to access services on campuses, but given the increased risks to everyone involved, taking a very cautious line about what activity should be taking place helps to keep staff and students safe. UNISON and the other unions called for:

  • Clear communications to students stating only come to campus if you absolutely need to
  • Buildings to be closed where possible to reduce the numbers of cleaners, technicians and estates workers required on campus
  • A review of all risk assessments (including individual assessments) with the protection of the most vulnerable the absolute priority

Student communications

While some improvements came later, the major error in the University’s early approach was a lack of clear guidance to students. The University maintained that it expected the “majority of facilities” to remain open in student communications at the start of term. While other Universities made “only come back to campus if you need to” the very centre of their message, the University merely linked to (often lengthy and vague) government guidance and just asked students to follow this before deciding to return. While comms have shifted recently and the announcement of a rent rebate will help to give much needed certainty to those who can remain where they are,  in many ways the damage was already done at the start of term, with numbers looking to access on campus services higher than anyone expected. 

Building closures and cleaning staff

In the last week unions have been consulted on what buildings should remain open and what this should mean for access and the work of support staff. We were encouraged to see that buildings classed as “standby” would only require cleaning once a week and that access to even operational buildings would be managed and restricted as much as possible. Unfortunately however this has not been translated into lower numbers of cleaning staff on campus, with management maintaining that exactly the same number of staff are required despite this reduction in activity. Safety representatives and members working on the ground don’t understand this at all, and cleaners are at a loss to why they are being expected to clean empty buildings daily that no-one should be using anyway. 

Missed opportunity in nurseries

While the government has committed to keeping nurseries and other early years settings open to all (despite significant concerns being raised by UNISON and other unions), as both a nursery operator and an employer of circa 8,000 staff, the University has options not open to many other childcare providers.

While the University has moved to a “best endeavours” model where parents struggling with childcare can in theory ask for flexibility from their line manager, in many cases staff find this difficult to arrange. Most importantly, the fact that some staff may want to keep children home as part of reducing both potential contacts and pressure on schools and childcare providers has never been acknowledged. This has meant occupancy of the nurseries has remained largely at pre-lockdown levels, with cases and possible instances of transmission reported at the nurseries within the past fortnight.  

We feel this puts nursery workers in an intolerable position, having to work exactly as if there was no lockdown. If you work in one of the University nurseries, a letter stating that safety concerns need to be resolved and the numbers of children reduced would provide you with legal protection from any loss in pay if you do not feel safe enough to be in work.

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