Staying safe at work

Many of our members were classed as ‘essential workers’, and have worked throughout the pandemic. In line with the Scottish government’s phased lifting of the lockdown, many others have been returning to work since lockdown restrictions began to be lifted.

Universities have been able to commence a phased return to on campus learning as part of a hybrid model, but should continue to make reasonable efforts to facilitate working and studying remotely. For staff and students working or studying on campus, public health measures must be in place. Edinburgh University Guidance can be found here. If you are concerned that your workplace is not following this guidance please get in touch with the branch.

In order to ensure that workplaces are safe for staff, the University should undertake risk assessments to make them COVID-secure. A risk assessment is what an employer must do to keep their staff and anybody else who may use their workplaces, safe from harm, and must be ‘adequate’, ‘suitable and sufficient’.

Risk assessments identify workplace hazards that are likely to cause harm to employees and visitors. COVID-19 is such a hazard, and the University must put measures in place to prevent its spread.

The University must set out the measures they are taking to address the hazards identified. They must also identify all those for whom they have a duty of care, whether they are staff or service-users, who are classed as being either at high or moderate risk from COVID-19.

Trade Union Health and Safety Representatives have been working throughout the pandemic to ensure these requirements are met.

What is a risk assessment?

The risk assessment process is simple. It is an examination of the work and workplace to identify what could cause harm to people (a hazard); an assessment of the chance, high or low, that somebody could be harmed by the hazards identified; an indication of how serious the harm could be (the risk).

Based on this assessment a decision is made as to what prevention or control measures should be taken to prevent the possibility of harm. There is no single method of risk assessment that covers all types of workplaces, and different employers will use different methods.

Every method involves making decisions about the acceptability of risk. This, whatever management may say, is not a scientific process but is based on the value the employer places on the safety and health of their workers.

It is important that you understand the method of risk assessment your employer is using, and ensure that the process deals with the issues that concern you promptly, and reflects the real risks in the workplace, including long-term health risks.

Although there is no single correct way of doing risk assessments, what is important to remember is that, whatever process is used, the risk assessments should be systematic and thorough, and must look at what actually happens in the workplace – not just at what the employer thinks happens! This means no real risk assessment can take place unless the people that actually do the jobs and who have a practical understanding of the hazards and risks involved have been consulted.

You have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to take care of your own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by your actions at work. Staff must co-operate with employers and co-workers to help everyone meet their legal requirements.

Ask to see the risk assessments to ensure you and your employer are fulfilling these duties. If your department will not show you the risk assessment contact Unison.

Do not put yourself at risk. If you believe a task, activity or duty is unsafe, remove yourself to the nearest point of safety and report it immediately to your line manager. Please also contact Unison at the earliest opportunity (contact details below).

Do I need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

This depends on what you do, where, and with whom you work. You are more likely to require PPE if you are providing direct care, work in a laboratory or medical setting, or are cleaning premises (potentially) contaminated by COVID-19. Cleaners of student accommodation have also been identified as requiring PPE. This list is not exhaustive, and the University will identify the need through the risk assessments.

For other groups of staff measures such as hand hygiene, social distancing and shielding those at higher risk are most effective. The best protection against COVID-19 is, if possible, to remove yourself from any sources of infection. That is why we have campaigned to ensure that employers comply with social distancing guidelines.

It is important that PPE is supplied to those who need it, and are trained in its use. Unnecessary and incorrectly used PPE may put yourselves, colleagues, family, and friends at additional risk. The virus lives longer on plastics than ordinary clothes, so if not correctly used and disposed of items such as masks can become vessels for spreading infection.

Face Coverings

In line with Scottish Government guidance, it is now mandatory that face coverings are worn in all libraries and study spaces. The University has issued a statement that they expect everyone to wear face coverings in all University buildings, unless individuals have good reasons for not wearing one.

We are aware of the lack of face coverings being worn by students, particularly in accommodation. We understand the residences are students’ homes, but for the protection of our staff we expect the University to ensure compliance with the government regulation that, in indoor places and where physical distancing is difficult and where there is a risk of contact within 2m with people who are not members of your household, you are expected to wear a face covering.

We want you to feel supported in walking away from duties if you do not feel safe performing them. For example, if students do not leave communal areas while they are being cleaned, as they are expected to do, and are not wearing face coverings, we support members who remove themselves from this situation.

The university updated it’s guidance in Jan 2021 to ensure that staff and students had access to information about the appropriate use of suitable face coverings and there is also information on the University Health and Safety blog spot. The university guidance recommends that face coverings are made of cloth or other textiles and should be two, and preferably three, layers thick in line with WHO recommendations and fit snugly around the mouth, nose and chin while allowing you to breathe easily. Religious face coverings that cover the mouth and the nose count as face coverings for these purposes. The above link makes clear that scarves are not suitable face coverings and can in fact increase the transmission of the virus by not being stored correctly when removed. i.e placed on desks and over chairs.

Staff and students should be aware that there are certain conditions and hidden disabilities that may preclude persons from wearing face coverings and should ensure they understand and respect this. In line with our Dignity & Respect policy, any bullying or harassment on this issue will not be tolerated.

Further guidance on wearing face coverings is available on the Scottish Government website.

What if I do not feel my workplace is safe?

We believe that no one should be placed in a situation where they might endanger themselves and others while doing their jobs. If you are placed is such a situation, this is potentially a breach of health and safety law.

You must immediately stop any activity or duty which you feel is endangering you, remove yourself to a place of safety, and report concerns to your line manager. Please also contact Unison at the earliest opportunity.

Example situations:

  • Students not maintaining a reasonable distance or adhering to indoor face-covering guidance whilst entering a room/corridor whilst you are performing your duties – ask the student to step back. If they do not remove themselves from your space, immediately stop the task as above.
  • Dispersing an illegal gathering, especially where alcohol is a factor – staff are not required to enforce the law and police should be called.
  • Isolation/quarantine – where a household is confirmed as isolating (either symptomatic or quarantine due to travel) you do not have to carry out any duties within the affected students’ rooms. Only work which is to remedy a direct risk to safety or is having a significant impact to quality of life will be carried out. You have the right to refuse to carry out such tasks and a qualified contractor will be called. If you refuse to carry out a task, and are asked again, contact Unison immediately.

What are my rights?

When faced with a dangerous working environment, which cannot reasonably be avoided, every employee has the right not to suffer detriment if they leave, or refuse to attend their place of work (or take other appropriate steps), in circumstances where they reasonably believe there is a risk of being exposed to serious and imminent danger (section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996).

We must be clear, however, that this is very much a right of last resort. The context of a situation will be key as to whether refusing to return to work or taking other steps are appropriate.  This means that an employee cannot automatically refuse a reasonable instruction to return to work without a good reason.

If you feel you are being put at risk, it is crucial to get advice and discuss the situation with Unison.

Reporting breaches and feedback

Risk assessments and controls must be reviewed whenever there are any significant changes to workplace processes or design; whenever new machinery, substances or procedures are introduced; whenever there is an injury or incident because of hazard exposure.

You can report concerns and give feedback to your line manager, building review teams, health and safety staff, and to Unison.

The University has also established a series of communication channels to encourage feedback on how new operational arrangements are working, including for those who do not have routine access to electronic means of communication. There is now a reporting form online where breaches of student conduct can be reported.

In addition, you can report concerns to the Covid 19 mailbox. This mailbox is being monitored to ensure action is taken where required by the university health and safety department, and themes are being recorded.

A single point of contact has also been established for trade unions to help the Scottish Government understand how all COVID-19 workplace guidance is being implemented, and to help shape and refine that guidance based on the real experience of workers in the workplace. Please continue to report your concerns and give feedback to the branch, so we can ensure your experiences also inform this ongoing dialogue with government.

How do I contact Unison?

The easiest way to contact us is to email the branch: unison@ed.ac.uk

Phone: 07383 013819. Due to the large number of meetings etc, it’s often not possible to answer phone calls. If it’s your preferred option, please leave a message and we will try to return your call asap. Otherwise please email us, as we can reply to them during hours that we can’t make calls.

Health & Safety queries/concerns can be made directly to:

Lauren Reid: lauren.reid@ed.ac.uk

Branch Chair/lead H&S rep/ACE workplace rep