Many frontline local authority workers, including in Belfast, Northern Ireland, will be asked to maintain essential services throughout the coronavirus crisis. In doing so, they need to remember their first priority is their own survival and that of their workmates, friends and families. All the old ways of working are now out the window.
Any safety reps, shop stewards or union activists should go back to the basics, if in any doubt. Although it may look boring and may need to be updated now, we need to use the ‘Five Steps’ in assessing risks that we would have learned about from health & safety courses. Thes are: identify the hazards; assess risks; control risks; record findings; review controls.
We could add a new one: if in doubt, don’t do it, and go home, which is what most Belfast City Council managers have done. ‘Don’t do it’ has always been the advice if certain situations were identified as too hazardous. This is clearly where we are. The problem is that while senior management sends out general advice on how to deal with the coronavirus, it appears to be aimed more at administration and management, who have been advised to work from home. Workers with underlying health issues, and those who are pregnant, have been told to go home but others have been asked to carry on.
This appears to be in line with the advice of Boris Johnson on ‘herd immunity’, which has now been abandoned. Even this reckless government has now opted for suppression and ‘social distancing’. However, some managers in local authority parks and cleansing, now called OSS (Open spaces and Streetscene), maintain its all right to go out to work, two or three to a vehicle, and often, in reality, more. Where’s the social distancing here? Who did the risk assessment? To make matters worse, the Street Warden service in Belfast was transferred from the main Duncrue depot to the smaller Ormeau depot, thus spreading the risk. A lot of manual and frontline workers no longer feel safe and, one way or another, have left work.
Most workers are willing to be redeployed to maintain emergency, essential services, such as refuse collection. But this can only be done through rigorous new safety procedures led by the trade unions.
PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is always the last line of defence, not the first as many mistakenly think. A suit, gloves and a mask will not stop this virus. Voting with your feet will.