Combatting unsafe workplaces: an interview with Janet Newsham

As we hear employers insisting that their sites are ‘Covid-secure’ or ‘Covid-safe’ despite workplaces being hotspots for Covid transmission, rs21’s Kate Bradley interviews Janet Newsham from Hazards Campaign about unscrupulous employers, workers’ rights and how trade unions can and should be intervening in this health crisis.

Janet will be speaking at the Zero Covid conference on 16 January, which can be registered for here.

A photo of a train moving fast beside a mainly empty London Underground platform. Keywords: Section 44 workplace safety unions
Photo by Adrien Ledoux on Unsplash.

As the country continues in its third ‘full’ lockdown, there’s been a lot of conversations about how unsafe some kinds of workplace are – with care homes, schools and supermarkets being flashpoints, as well as the NHS frontline. How far do you think it’s been workplaces that have acted as transmission hubs for Covid?

We know that workplaces are not controlling the risks of transmission. Workplaces include education sites, shops, public transport, offices, factories, construction sites, mail rooms, distribution centres, prisons, hospitals and care homes. Thousands have died from and in those settings. The guidance issued by the government and the Covid-secure information on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website has been weaker than existing health and safety law, which provides a more robust precautionary approach to controlling risks. Modes of transmission of the virus, and the controls that are needed to stop infections, are a normal part of infection control. There is health and safety law, including the Management of Health, Safety and Work Regulations, that controls the risks by placing a duty on employers to carry out ‘suitable and sufficient’ Risk Assessments.

However, the risks of transmission haven’t been, and still aren’t being, controlled in many environments, including many high-risk workplaces such as the care sector, hospitals, meat and food processing sector and, of course, schools. The exponential increase in cases shows this. In addition, it has been widely known since early in the pandemic how the virus spreads and how transmission risks can be mitigated. Unfortunately, as outbreaks hit the headlines, individuals are often blamed for having met up with someone outside of work, or travelled to work in the same car or similar, rather than enforcement authorities investigating properly, examining any underlying causes and sharing findings. Public Health England (PHE) have reported some workplace clusters and some have hit the headlines, but the government and authorities have not regarded many workplaces as transmission routes, not because they weren’t, but because they are ignoring those settings as being workplaces (schools, for example). And they have also chosen to keep workplaces open for economic reasons.

What’s the latest on how to keep workplaces safe – should people be focusing on distance, PPE, hygiene or ventilation, and in what order of importance?

Anyone can be infectious and infected, whether they have symptoms or not. Transmission of the virus is by aerosols, large droplets, direct and indirect contact. Most important is the transmission by aerosols, which travel further than two metres and can hang in the air. Having fewer people in workplaces for less time, combined with far greater ventilation would help, along with a proper standard of PPE to mitigate against any residual risk.

Who is most at risk depends on the setting. Obviously healthcare workers in a setting with lots of infected people need a high standard of protection, but everyone working in that setting is at risk, including cleaners, porters etc.. Also, if the risks of aerosols aren’t being controlled and there is a high transmission rate in the community, anyone coming into an indoor setting is at high risk of spreading the virus and being infected. Face coverings have helped but a precautionary standard of PPE must be provided for workers working indoors for long periods of time. We are also still talking about the basics – all settings should improve cleaning and hygiene practices, and should eliminate shared touchpoints or places where people congregate.

Have you heard many examples of employers breaking the new lockdown rules and health and safety guidance? What are the themes?

There have been examples of pubs, clubs and restaurants breaking lockdown rules. But for most employers they don’t need to, as the government has allowed them to remain open.  There are lots of examples of where risks of transmission of the virus haven’t been controlled: schools, care homes, hospitals, DWP offices, construction sites, football venues, distribution centres, retail, postal offices and distribution, call centres – mainly not improving ventilation, not maintaining social distancing, not providing a precautionary standard of PPE. Where there have been outbreaks, many employers have not stopped work until the outbreak has investigated and people tested and isolated. Some workers have been told to turn off their Covid apps in work. Low sick pay entitlements, or refusal to pay sick pay, have meant that many people can’t afford to stay off work, putting workers under pressure workers to attend work even if they have been told to isolate. Some employers have been forcing extremely vulnerable workers back to work, or keeping people working when close contacts have become infected. Workers have been called back into work in cases where they can carry out their work duties remotely, placing them at risk in work and when they are travelling to work.

What are the ‘Section 44’ rights some people have been talking about, and how would you go about trying to stay off work using these rights?

Section 44 and Section 100 of the Employment Rights Act enables an individual (an employee or worker) to remove themselves from a dangerous situation where there is ‘serious and imminent danger’, without suffering detriment. However, if an individual insists on this right, unscrupulous employers could still dismiss the individual and the only recourse is for them to put in an Employment Tribunal Claim. So it is an individual right that can place individuals who use it in a precarious situation. What is better is to approach it from a collective position, where a group of individuals submit letters to the employer to remove themselves from a potential dangerous situation. This is what the National Education Union members did and the impact was that it forced many schools to close and the government to announce that it would close schools.

Are there any extra protections for workers who are vulnerable, or who live with shielding or vulnerable people? What would your advice be to them if they are asked to enter an unsafe workplace?

The position on shielding has changed throughout the pandemic, but the risks haven’t. In fact, they have increased. Government advice is that ‘if you are clinically extremely vulnerable you should only go out for medical appointments, exercise or if it is essential. You should not attend work’. However, there are many individuals who do not fall into this category who, if they became infected by the virus, would still be at risk of a more serious illness. Anyone who is asked to enter an unsafe workplace should ask for an individual risk assessment first. These should identify additional controls needed. However, the risk of transmission is so high, this would be a good example of where an individual could contact their trade union and refuse to enter the workplace using the Section 44 provisions if necessary.

A cartoon of Boris Johnson, captioned 'Die for Profit'. Keywrods: Covid workplace safety Section 44 trade union unions
Credit: Artivists at Work

Are there any examples you’d like to highlight of workers fighting back against the health risks they’re being asked to take?

The highlight of 2021 so far has been the action taken by teachers and other school staff.

Many workers in trade unions have been negotiating with employers on the safety of staff.  The University and College Union has negotiated Covid risk assessments with prison education services and universities. United Voices of the World strike actions and campaigning won sick pay for cleaners working at the Ministry of Justice to enable them to stay home from work when it was unsafe to come in. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has fought for sick pay for workers in the food retail industry. These are just some of the examples of union activity improving overall workplace safety – not to mention all the reps working hard on the ground in their workplaces.

Are there any official bodies enforcing the rules on employers? Is there anyone you can report an employer to if they are clearly breaking the law or health and safety guidance?

At the beginning of the pandemic we were extremely concerned about those workers on precarious contracts unable to report their employers because the HSE insisted it couldn’t be done anonymously. We [Hazards Campaign] contacted the HSE and eventually they accepted and made it more accessible to report employers breaking the rules. However, for the most part, enforcement by the HSE has been lacking. Lots of people have been fined for breaking Covid rules, but hardly any employers.

It has been better in Scotland, where the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland has been working more closely with trade unions. Initially in the North of Ireland, there were good communications with the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland, but now infection rates are soaring.

I’ve noticed a bit of a fudge going on around the phrase ‘essential work’: whilst essential workers, or ‘key workers’, are expected by the public to be something to do with healthcare or the Covid frontline, ‘essential work’ is also being used to describe any work that ‘can’t be done from home’, even in a totally inessential profit-making workplace for example. This gives employers a lot of scope for interpretation and for pressuring workers to come in. Have you noticed this, and if so, how would you help people make that distinction so they can strengthen their arguments? 

It is very difficult for workers to be asked to make these decisions. They risk not being paid, being sacked or not being given hours if they argue that their work isn’t essential. It has to be a decision taken by authorities and enforced by the authorities to hold employers to account. There should be stricter rules about what is open. For example, WHSmith opens during the week because it has a Post Office, but on Sundays, the Post Office is closed but the shop stays open. During the tier system, pubs in Tier 2 were open if they sold food, but the risk of infection didn’t reduce if people sat down for a meal.

Workplaces should only be open if they are controlling all the risks and have been certified as controlling them. Why are Amazon workers and Sports Direct workers still working? Why are construction workers working on building hotels and luxury flats still working?

What do you think the trade unions should be doing on this issue?

Trade unions need to provide reps with the confidence, information and support to challenge and protect members and recruit other workers. Safety reps need to ensure that all the risks are being controlled by their employers. Union branches may find they need to elect more safety reps, and organise more online events so that the issues can be discussed and information shared. Workers are twice as safe in active trade union workplaces even in normal times, but during the pandemic trade unions are saving lives. Bus worker trade unionists sealed off front doors and seats and opened windows and sealed off drivers’ cabs before the employers acted.

More than half of workers don’t belong to a trade union that is recognised by their employer. During the pandemic, many people have been involved in campaigning for safe work, safe schools, organisations like bereaved families’ campaigns, school parents campaigns, etc. These should be provided with information, advice and support by the trade union movement. This is surely a prime time for involving these people in trade unions as active, rank-and-file members.

Do you want to tell us a bit about Hazards and what you’ve been doing during the pandemic?

Hazards in a UK-wide network of health, safety and environment activists, campaigners and trade unionists established to campaign to improve workplace health, safety and welfare, reduce injury and death from work-related incidents and illnesses, and seek justice for families of those killed because of their work.

Throughout the pandemic our focus hasn’t changed, but our work has increased. We have been supporting individual workers with issues and families of workers bereaved because of workplace incidents, and we have supported trade unions and campaigning on specific issues such as organising for Zero Covid, but also on other issues such as air pollution, breast cancer, the menopause and mental health.

We have been holding fortnightly-ish discussion forums, have provided information for workers on health and safety issues, delivered training, developed a paper with Independent Sage, held briefings, and spoken at numerous events and conferences. We have produced a film on ‘Covid transmission and killer workplaces’, a podcast on young workers’ mental health, press releases, written to MPs, HSE, PHE, shared research and evidence, and worked with unions to support their activities. We have also been active internationally and spoken at conferences, such as that of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) in the US the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, and also held regular communications with international occupational health and safety organisations.

You can see Hazards Campaign’s main website here, and there are further resources from the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre here. You can also follow them on social media –  Twitter and Facebook.




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