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       Hazards, number 149, 2020
CORONAVIRUS |  Union guide to workplace protection 
As entire nations go into a coronavirus shutdown, unions are playing a crucial role in ensuring all workers, including those keeping health and essential services viable, are protected.


There is no escaping the coronavirus. Until late in 2019, few of us had heard of it. Now because of it, many of us have had to put our lives on hold.

MASKED PROBLEM The coronavirus pandemic has closed everything from the Louvre to entire countries. Essential public health measures – including good hygiene, handwashing and proper employment protection and sick pay - are much more effective controls than donning a mask.

Union reps have found themselves on a crash course on how to respond at work to the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiating protections at work. It’s not just about workers falling ill. It’s also about an unprecedented challenge to sick pay and employment rights.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) initial assessment published on 18 March 2020 estimated about 25 million jobs could be lost as result of the pandemic. The ILO, a part of the UN, called for “urgent, large-scale and coordinated measures across three pillars: protecting workers in the workplace, stimulating the economy and employment, and supporting jobs and incomes.”

ILO director-general Guy Ryder commented: “This is no longer only a global health crisis, it is also a major labour market and economic crisis that is having a huge impact on people.”  He added: “In 2008, the world presented a united front to address the consequences of the global financial crisis, and the worst was averted. We need that kind of leadership and resolve now.”

Infection risks

Covid-19, also known as the novel coronavirus and SARS-CoV-2, is one of a family of viruses that normally cause mild illness, with symptoms typically similar to a common cold. It is more serious than the usual influenza outbreaks that happen every year.

Symptoms can include a fever, fatigue, dry cough and difficulty breathing, as well as other typical cold symptoms. In more severe cases, the virus can cause pneumonia. Those over the age of 65 or with existing health conditions are at heightened risk. After exposure, symptoms take a few days on average to appear – this differs to flu viruses which tend to incubate very quickly.

Research has established asymptomatic workers can transmit the infection. “This is why unions should support general hygiene campaigns, as a way of slowing the spread of any pandemic should it develop,” a February 2020 TUC prevention guide notes.

The disease is airborne and contracted by breathing in viral droplets, in an aerosol ejected during coughing, sneezing or even breathing. It can linger on surfaces, so effective and enhanced cleaning programmes are essential. Evidence suggests certain groups of public-facing workers, particularly those in health care, are at a heightened ‘work-related’ risk.

Prepare and prevent

The new TUC guide for unions reps says they “should ensure their employer has in place either a separate policy for dealing with Covid-19, or a general policy covering public health emergencies, major disasters or incidents. It should not be left to employers alone to decide on what is an appropriate response - unions must also be involved, as any effective policy must have the confidence of the whole workforce.”

Risk assessments should consider all the potential impacts on their operations and staff, the TUC says, “right up to the worst likely situation of workplace closure, disruption to transport, and the disruptions to other services such as banking, the internet and supply chains.”

Unions representing staff at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have called on their management to directly intervene with the government on behalf of the public and their members. more

Normal workplace health and safety law applies, complemented by specific public health approaches recommended both inside and outside the workplace. The official UK safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), notes: “The main piece of legislation that applies to infections at work is The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).”

The TUC says key questions to form part of risk assessments should include:

Does the employer’s plan include a realistic estimate of the absence rate as a consequence of employee infection, school closures or other disruption?
Has the employer looked at issues around supply of services?
Have all departments and the union been involved in drawing up the plan?
Have all departments and the union been involved in drawing up the plan?
Has the employer considered the operation of functions such as cleaning and catering, if these are not done ‘in-house’?

Employer action

Adequate sick pay is a must. Employers should look at existing agreements to make sure they are applied effectively and fairly when a worker is isolated. The Employment Rights Act (section 64) states an “employee who is suspended from work by his employer on medical grounds is entitled to be paid by his employer remuneration while he is so suspended for a period not exceeding twenty-six weeks.”

Collective agreements negotiated by unions will offer sick pay rights beyond the legal minimum. Wages should also be protected as far as possible if the firm is compelled to reduce or stop its activities through a reduction in demand, supply chain difficulties or other disruption.

Unions should make sure employers stick to agreements and should check whether agreements need modifying to account for special circumstances related to the outbreak. Other measures that can be taken to help limit the spread of the virus, including:

The provision of alcohol-based hand sanitisers
Enhanced, high levels of cleanliness in the workplace
Cancelling all avoidable travel
Keeping abreast of official guidance and best practice guidelines
Allowing flexible working, including work from home where possible.

Protection at work

Enhanced cleaning regimes are a sensible precaution, with a plan for deep cleaning programmes in the event of coronavirus cases in the workplace. The TUC says damp rather than dry dusting should be carried out during a pandemic to avoid the generation of dust. Surfaces should be cleaned with a freshly prepared solution of detergent and hot water followed, where necessary, by a chlorine-based disinfectant solution.


Global public service union federation PSI has launched a new coronavirus and public health campaign. Safe Workers Save Lives forms part of PSI’s wider Public Health, Once and for All campaign.

PSI says governments across the world must provide:

• Sufficient suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) and training “so we can stay healthy while saving lives.”
• Targeted measures to support health workers who will be working incredibly long hours: care must be provided for their children and other dependents too.
• Provisions for home working, paid sick leave, emergency unemployment benefits, and above all, free public healthcare for all.
• Well-staffed and resourced public health systems, equipped to respond to public health emergencies.

“The ongoing coronavirus outbreak is exposing the vital need for quality public services - especially well-staffed, resilient public health systems,” PSI notes.

The campaign resources includes a campaign video, poster on ‘your rights as a health worker’ and guidance briefing for union action. Modifiable poster in English - Français - Español.
More. Sign the global petition for PPE

The TUC guide advises that employers “can include the provision of hand sanitisers and other cleaning equipment” and should “maintain high levels of cleanliness in the workplace. Generally, providing facilities for workers to wash their hands is the most basic and most effective provision an employer can take.” Regular, thorough, hand washing with soap and water is a necessary and effective measure.

The TUC guide says it is important to have the right personal protective equipment (PPE). “There is no evidence that, outside health care situations, the general use of facemasks has any actual effect on protecting people or reducing the speed of a pandemic’s development. In fact, the surgical paper masks most commonly seen offer little in the way of protection.”

The TUC adds the most effective mask recommended in health care situations is the level 3 respirator (FFP3), noting “tests have shown it reduces the level of exposure by six-fold. Union reps should look out for a certification mark on any masks provided [CE or EN certification], as this indicates it has met relevant EU health and safety standards. It is also vital that masks are issued to workers for personal use, and not shared.”

To be effective, masks must be properly fit-tested.

Gloves do not prevent infection as people will still touch their skin with the gloves and then touch another surface or person, the TUC warns.

Viral contact

If workers – for example health care providers – are engaging with people who have tested positive for Covid-19, then specific personal protective equipment is required, the TUC guide advises. Depending on the procedure, government guidance calls for the use of:

A long-sleeved disposable fluid-repellent gown
disposable gloves with long, tight-fitting cuffs
eye protection for all patient contacts.
a FFP3 respirator, for high risk procedures.

The government guidance adds that workers should refrain from touching their mouth, eyes or nose with potentially contaminated gloves.

It should be noted that many health care professionals believe protective equipment particularly masks and visors, needs to be available more widely in health care settings.

In a 19 March 2020 statement, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the Chair of Council at the British Medical Association (BMA), said: “There are limits to the risks to which doctors, indeed all healthcare workers, can reasonably be expected to expose themselves to.

“Frontline staff must have the proper personal protective equipment if they are treating patients with Covid-19 or suspected to have Covid-19. We are hearing of staff trying to buy masks from DIY stores in desperation because they are not being provided with it by their employers. This is totally unacceptable; healthcare workers should not, and do not, have to expose themselves to high risk situations without having adequate personal protection equipment (PPE).

“The government must find a reliable way to substantially increase the production and distribution of PPE. If any healthcare worker, treating someone with Covid-19 was to become ill, or worse, due to a lack of PPE, the consequences will be dire and the impact on patient care catastrophic.

“As well as the correct PPE, it’s imperative that healthcare workers who are self-isolating, or suspect they may have the virus, are tested without further delay.”

The deaths in late March 2020 of two NHS hospital consultants who contracted coronavirus from patients subsequently prompted a 30 March extension of the government guidelines on protective equipment including FFP3 masks to include a wider range of hospital work, replacing the higher risk work only guidance.


CLEANING UP  Get your advice on the coronavirus infection from reliable sources, the TUC guide advises. Social media is awash with fake news about the outbreak.

There is a duty on employers to keep workers informed with up-to-date, reliable information from sources like the Department for Health and Public Health England, the TUC guide notes. Management should have received any necessary training on understanding Covid-19 and the measures necessary should an outbreak be suspected.

Union safety reps should be consulted about and made aware of any policies or measures taken, and clear lines of reporting to managers should be established.

According to the TUC: “Safety representatives are urged to ensure that their employer notifies all their staff of what arrangements they have made to prepare for an outbreak of pandemic Covid-19, including what role they expect individual staff to take.”


Hazards’ comprehensive guide to coronavirus resources.
UK Hazards Campaign guidance for workers.
No return to unsafe workplaces, STUC
Coronavirus/ COVID-19 Guidance to Unions, TUC, March 2020.
Unite Coronavirus/Covid-19 advice and guide for union officers.
Covid-19 – RMT advice and information
Society of Radiographers (SoR) Covid-19 information and resources
GMB coronavirus hub and GMB Coronavirus Briefing on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Chartered Society of Physiotherapy guidance and news on the coronavirus pandemic.
NASUWT Covid-19 guidance.
Nautilus FAQs for seafarers on coronavirus and Nautilus Coronavirus Resources hub.
NUJ advice on Covid-19.
UCU advice on coronavirus.
UNISON coronavirus Q&A and guidance on Personal Protective Equipment and coronavirus.
COVID-19: Guidance for infection prevention and control in healthcare settings, Public Health England, 2020.
NHS coronavirus webpages and guidance for clinicians. NHS Staff Council statement on Covid-19.
Thompsons Solicitors briefing on coronavirus and the UK law at work and 30 March 2020 briefing on employer and employees responsibilities in the wake of coronavirus (COVID-19).
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) coronavirus webpages and infection risks at work webpages.
Equity - Coronavirus Advice
Musicians' Union: Coronavirus guidance for musicians
EIS – Coronavirus advice
Coronavirus/ COVID-19 Guidance to Unions, TUC, March 2020.
COVID-19: Guidance for infection prevention and control in healthcare settings, Public Health England, 2020.
NHS coronavirus webpages and guidance for clinicians. NHS Staff Council statement on Covid-19.
Thompsons Solicitors briefing on coronavirus and the UK law at work.
Labourstart unions and Covid-19 news service.
UK Hazards Campaign guidance for workers.
Covid-19: News from unions, ITUC.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) coronavirus webpages and infection risks at work webpages.


Will the watchdog bark?

Unions representing staff at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have called on their management to directly intervene with the government on behalf of the public and their members.

Prospect, the FDA and PCS have written a joint letter to the chair and the chief Executive of the HSE, Martin Temple and Sarah Albon, asking them to fulfil their duty as the independent regulator in charge of enforcing health and safety at work.

The 25 March 2020 letter from HSE unions says that despite guidance from the government that only essential workers should be going to work, some employers are stretching the interpretation of this to keep as many people as they can working. This is putting workers in danger, potentially putting HSE inspectors at risk if they have to visit a workplace, and increasing the likelihood of insurmountable pressures on the NHS, they add.

The letter asks that: “You as chair and chief executive respectively to press Her Majesty’s Government to order the suspension of all non-essential work where guarantees cannot be given that risks to workers and to your own employees who may be called to an incident are not being managed in accordance with the law.”

The letter was written after members of the three unions raised concerns about practices in a variety of industries including construction, energy, retail and others.

Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary said: “The government has been consistently behind the curve on its response to the epidemic in its advice to workers and employers. We are now in lockdown but we still  see the situation where morning Tubes are rammed with people, many of whom are in no way essential workers.

“The HSE has a regulatory duty to protect health and safety at work. They need to intervene on workers’ behalf and make sure the government is crystal clear on who should be going out to work, and who should not. If you leave things open to interpretation, some employers will inevitably take advantage and put workers at risk.”


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As entire nations go into a coronavirus shutdown, unions are playing a crucial role in ensuring all workers, including those keeping health and essential services viable, are protected.

Infection risks
Prepare and prevent
Employer action
Protection at work
Viral contact
UK coronavirus resources

Hazards webpages
Hazards news
Work and health

Other story
Essential action