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TUC CONGRESS 2020 Front-line workers need effective health and safety – especially in our schools

A decade of cuts to ‘red tape’ has undermined efforts to keep workplaces safe against the transmission of the deadly coronavirus, says PATRICK ROACH

A DECADE ago, the Conservative-led coalition government branded health and safety as mere “red tape.” 

Schools were designated as low-risk environments and the message to school employers was to exercise their common sense while the government systematically set about a renewed “red tape” challenge, cutting rights and undermining the safety of workers. 

Roll forward 10 years, and health and safety has been brought centre stage as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. 

Health and safety have been acknowledged by the government as key to unlocking opportunity for schools and colleges to reopen their doors fully. 

However, whether this is a genuine acceptance of the need for effective health and safety practice is a moot point as the effects of deregulation continue to undermine efforts to make workplaces safe and to keep them safe against the transmission of the deadly coronavirus.

Workers, especially front-line workers, the lower paid and agency staff have borne the brunt of the coronavirus crisis. 

They have been exposed to weakened protections and exploitative employer practices, and to a lack of effective regulation. 

This has been true for front-line workers across the economy, in the NHS, social care and also for teachers and support staff in our schools and colleges. 

With evidence of increasing rates of transmission of Covid-19 in the population, there is now a growing and deepening sense of public concern. 

Questions are rife about the government’s competence in dealing with the current crisis. 

And understandably so. The government has failed to mandate the actions to be taken by schools and continues to assert, in the face of growing evidence of virus transmission within schools and in the wider community, that parents and the workforce have no reason to be concerned. 

Yet three-fifths of teachers have reported that just two weeks after reopening, they do not believe that Covid-19 control measures are being implemented consistently in their schools. 

One-third of teachers report that social distancing measures are not in place; a further one in three report lack of access to soap and water for handwashing; and the absence of effective cleaning regimes are also an issue of concern. 

Instead of coming up with obstacles and derision, government has to recognise and take seriously that workplace safety is central to the provision of high-quality services and to keeping the economy going throughout this crisis and beyond. 

The public has already recognised the importance of trade unions in ensuring safer services and workplaces for their loved ones.

A stronger voice for the Health and Safety Executive would also help, coupled with action to ensure that trade union health and safety representatives are able to undertake the everyday vital work they do to ensure that safety standards are in place and being implemented. 

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the significance of risk assessment, and the importance of having trained health and safety representatives in appraising risk assessments and giving advice to employers. 

The statutory right of health and safety representatives to facilities release time is essential and needs to be protected and enhanced. 

Indeed, a key indicator of a Covid-safe workplace is that we see more health and safety representatives across all workplaces.

If the government is serious about tackling the pandemic and keeping people safe, then it needs to stop systematically undermining the statutory rights of trade unions and ensure that every workplace representative receives the time they are entitled to for their union work. 

As we head into the winter, the government’s focus must also be on ensuring that every school and college has in place and implements fully effective measures on safety at work. 

The government cannot continue to claim that it is on the side of working people and their families if it continues to adopt policies that undermine safety standards in schools and colleges and the rights of trade union representatives. 

Patrick Roach is general secretary of NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union.

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