From Staying Home to Staying Alert: what does the PM's new plan mean for workers?


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Silhouettes of construction workers. © Photo by Yancy Min on Unsplash

In his public address yesterday, the Prime Minister advised that “you should go to work if you can’t work from home”, emphasising that those working in construction or manufacturing should be actively encouraged to go to work.

The virus presents a workplace health and safety risk unlike any other. The agility to develop new internal processes, to identify appropriate protective equipment and rollout new staff training will come more easily to firms already well-practised in managing occupational health risks. Higher risk sectors like construction, manufacturing and health and social care have sophisticated health and safety support infrastructures in place which will make them better positioned to adapt to this challenge.

Other sectors have had to move quickly to respond to the risk of infection. Supermarkets have been busier than ever during the lockdown period, and have implemented social distancing measures in-store and within queuing systems; food and postal delivery services have introduced contactless drop-offs, and measures within public transport include requiring passengers to board buses through rear doors.

These visible measures have a dual purpose - to protect staff and customers and provide reassurance to the wider public that it remains safe to use these services.

The spike in online retail through the lockdown period alongside increased grocery shopping has also put pressure on businesses less visible to the public, including warehouses and distribution centres. As order volumes increase, the workers processing and packing them at close proximity to their colleagues may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Workers in both clothing and grocery distribution have reported unsafe conditions, and several firms have already faced challenges from unions for failing to take sufficient precautions.

In his address, the PM suggested that people working in construction and manufacturing should be “actively encouraged” to return to work. It’s clear these industries have faced particular difficulties through the lockdown - 21% of manufacturing firms and 26% of construction firms surveyed by the ONS have temporarily ceased to trade as a result of COVID-19 and the lockdown measures, and 81% of construction firms have furloughed staff. But implementing a return to on-site working may still prove too high a hurdle for many firms, with manufacturing body Make UK cautioning that "in many parts of manufacturing people will need to work much more closely than 2 metres apart."

These sectors don't exist in a vacuum. Demand for UK manufactured products both here and internationally hinges on retail, logistics and exports. Similarly, the construction sector relies on complex supply chains to ensure access to materials at the right stage of the project. The extent to which they can resume activity while their counterpart industries move at a slower pace or have closed temporarily is unclear.

Enhancing workplace health and safety and catalysing the economic recovery are far from mutually exclusive – in fact, the opposite is the case. A sustainable return to economic growth will be contingent on a stable workforce and higher levels of consumer confidence.

The case for making incremental changes through deliberation with workers, employers, industry bodies and unions couldn’t be clearer. Government and businesses will be acutely conscious of the importance of workforce trust in leadership as we transition to the next phase of the lockdown.

Sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act (1996) state that an employee can refuse to work in order to avoid an imminent and serious danger to their health and safety. The legislation applies to the risk of infection at work as well as through using public transport to commute.

The Health and Safety Executive has now developed a mechanism to report workplace safety concerns related to coronavirus. Businesses struggling to manage in the current context can ill afford further staff shortages or enforcement action, and so the more risk averse may need enhanced guidance and support to incentivise restarting on-site activity.

Government should place greater emphasis on the health and safety standards that should be in place before on-site working can begin. This could involve:

·      tailored guidance to meet the specific challenges presented within high risk industries.

·      targeting elements of the new walking and cycling funding package to improve access to more remote sites workers would usually access by car

·      specifying where staggering shift patterns could be required to facilitate distancing.

The team here at the Work Foundation will continually share new insights and analysis as further information becomes available about the Government’s plans and guidance on returning to on-site activity.

  • coronavirus
  • covid-19

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