We predicted an explosion in workplace outbreaks, as workers were forced back to work – two weeks later that is exactly what we’ve got
Hazards campaign news release, 20th August 2020 (No embargo)
The workplace is emerging as the new frontline for Covid-19 spread, after the UK government and health agencies ignored warnings on the dangers of a rush back to work, occupational health experts have warned.
Janet Newsham, the chair of the national Hazards Campaign says: ‘We’ve got an unprecedented abdication of responsibility by HSE, which has never before eschewed its enforcement responsibility this way, or denied oversight to protect workers in workplaces where deadly disease risks, carcinogens and major accident hazards can be encountered. They have been AWOL throughout the pandemic and as a result workers have died and many more have been left with long term serious ill health’.
The Hazards Campaign has raised concerns about the unsafe opening of workplaces, including schools. ‘While the community transmission is so high reopening of schools will massively increase contacts between potentially infected individuals and will lead to pressure for more people to return to workplaces, greatly increasing risks.’
Over the last four weeks, Public Health England (PHE) figures (1) show the ‘workplace’ has emerged as the second most common site of Covid-19 ‘situations/incidents’, trailing only care homes. PHE’s definition of workplaces does not include work-related Covid incidents in hospitals, schools or prisons, so under-estimates the real extent of occupationally-related cases.
Evidence elsewhere, including France (2) and Germany (3), show workplaces are the new frontline for virus spread. Without adequate protection, rights and oversight, we are going to give the pandemic a whole new lease of life and the economy will continue to be decimated. A recent report ‘COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks in occupational settings in the EU/EEA and the UK’ published on the 11th August, 2020 details some of the occupational outbreaks across Europe. (3)
The Hazards Campaign has been tracking workplace outbreaks and its dossier shows food production remains a major hotspot for outbreaks, but there is a clear indication that the problem is wider, with multiple clusters also occurring in factories, schools, hospitality and other sectors.
At the start of the outbreak we were promised a ‘Covid-Secure’ return to work. What we have got instead is government-driven stampede back into workplaces, without the necessary oversight or support for workers or for businesses. The Government are forcing children back into unsafe schools, so that parents can return to unsafe workplaces and the chaotic and irresponsible opening of pubs, clubs and gyms during a high transmission of a potentially fatal disease is madness. The Government must also ensure that all workers are able to access statutory sick pay and there is an extension of the furlough programme to restrict the transmission of the virus (4).
The Covid-19 workplace clusters that are now appearing all over the country, are being put down to individuals breaking the rules, but when that coincides with workplaces closing down, mass testing of workers and mass positive results of the same workers, then this is uncontrolled transmission of the virus in workplaces, especially where workers are working inside buildings with an aerosol risk of transmission. (5)
If our society is to open schools then the transmission must be low, and track, trace and isolate must be fully functioning at a high level of contact and all the risks in that workplace must be controlled at a precautionary level. The enforcement authorities must act now to ensure that employers can demonstrate that they are carrying out their health and safety legal duties. This cant be based on ‘suck it and see’, or on the body bags that pile up, where risks are not controlled. It has to be right first time, and it has to include the full control of all the known risks.
There is a lot more evidence to show the extent of transmission of the virus on surfaces, and by aerosols. (6) This means new ways of working, new facilities and more resources to keep work safe. It means working from home as far as possible, not using public transport unless essential, it means remote teaching and learning, it means utilising new and existing premises to spread people out, it means shift working and shift management, it means controlling and increasing ventilation, it means less people at a time in workplaces, it may mean more people working less hours or different hours and it means working with trade unions and safety representatives to identify and control all the risks.
We need a community, collective and carefully controlled response to stopping the transmission of the virus, so that we can eventually reduce the controls necessary, return to normal working and hopefully a vaccination is found.
Notes to editors
1. PHE Weekly Report, Week 33, released 14 August 2020
2. Workplaces – not parties – ‘the biggest source of coronavirus contagion in France’ The Local FR, 3rd August 2020
3. COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks in occupational settings in the EU/EEA and the UK, 11 August 2020, European Centre for Diseases and Protection
4. Economic Aspects of the COVID-19 Crisis in the UK, The DELVE Initiative, 14 August 2020.
5. Recognizing and controlling airborne transmission of SARS‐CoV‐2 in indoor environments, Joseph G. Allen and Linsey C. Marr, Indoor Air, 19 June 2020.
6. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE: Is two metres too far or not far enough to protect from COVID-19 and who benefits and who loses if it is reduced ? Hazards Campaign, 22nd June 2020
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