Mitigation of risk of COVID 19 in occupational settings, with a focus on ethnic minority groups: Consensus Statement from PHE/HSE and FOM *

* Summary response from Doctors in Unite to the recent statement by Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine.  A more detailed review of the consensus statement can be found here.

With thanks to the TUC: Dying on the Job.  A report into Racism and Risk at Work

Doctors in Unite feel that the recommendations are nowhere near enough to mitigate the risks of COVID 19 in ethnic minority groups.

Employers cannot be trusted to be left to their own devices to ensure that workplaces are safe. We are aware that this is an extreme example, but in the largest meat packing factory in the US, managers coerced staff to continue working when they were clearly symptomatic of COVID 19 and took bets on who would become unwell. Five of the staff died.

It is of course welcome to have culturally sensitive information in many languages to alert people of ethnic minorities to important measures that they can take themselves to mitigate their risk, but the consensus statement does not touch on the much greater impact that factors beyond the control of the individual has on their risk.

A disproportionate number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds are employed in low paid sectors such as cleaning and caring roles, where they cannot work from home. They often have inadequate PPE. Studies have shown that cleaners in hospitals are more likely to catch COVID 19 at work than clinical staff who work with COVID patients. The latter have greatly superior PPE.

To make matters worse people from ethnic minority backgrounds often live in overcrowded, multigenerational households meaning that spread of infection within communities is likely to be disproportionately high.

Neither does your statement mention the increasing evidence of the importance of indoor airborne spread in the transmission of COVID 19 and the necessity of proper ventilation in the workplace.  A detailed study of the outbreak in the Tönnies meat packing plant in Germany in June showed the importance of ventilation in such plants

Only last year the UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Aston said during a visit to the UK that:

“Policies of austerity introduced in 2010 continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences.” 

We believe that the consensus statement would be much stronger if the emphasis was not focused on health education messages which put the onus on the individual to avoid catching COVID 19 but on the legal duty of employers to ensure a safe working environment and on Government to tackle the long recognised social determinants of health which lead to stark health inequalities.