New COVID variant presents greater workplace safety risks, TUC argues

The TUC is calling for an update to workplace safety rules to protect essential workers and those who can’t work from home from the new, more transmissible variant of COVID-19. It is also calling for a greater crackdown on employers putting staff at risk.

The union body says workplace safety rules written in March 2020 have not been fully updated to take account of the new variant, or of additional scientific findings uncovered since the original approach was laid out.

The organisation is warning that employers who do not update their risk assessments, in light of the new strains and the new knowledge about how the virus is transmitted, may be breaking the law.

TUC general-secretary, Frances O’Grady (pictured) 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 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.”

On the need for greater enforcement of COVID-19 safety rules, she added: “Unions hear daily from workers whose employers are putting them at risk. But there have been far too few inspections and too little enforcement. Nearly a year into this pandemic, and in our third national lockdown, it’s time for the government to stop letting bad bosses get away with it. Health and Safety Executive inspections must increase dramatically, to root out dangerous practice that spreads the virus.

“Transmission of COVID-19 is now understood to be mainly through infectious aerosols suspended in the air, rather than contact. This means current protective measures recommended for many, particularly public-facing workers, are inadequate. And new strains of the virus emerging from England and South Africa are significantly more transmissible than the initial strain of COVID-19.”

The union’s challenges (Source: TUC)

The TUC 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, removing the confusion about 1.5m social distancing

• 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 – CIBSE recommends at least 10 litres of outside air in offices per second per person

• Update guidance on workplace face coverings to the WHO standard of three protective layers

• Expand the number of jobs where workers should use FFP3 face masks, removing 99 per cent of particles, and ensure enough are available

The union body is also calling on the government to redouble efforts to enforce Covid-19 safety measures. During lockdown one, all Health and Safety Executive inspections were stopped – leaving workers at risk. And the TUC is concerned that without fear of enforcement and penalties, employers will increasingly cut corners, putting staff and the public at risk.

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