Urgent union action needed to stop airborne transmission of Covid-19 in the workplace

Resolution adopted by Doctors in Unite 12 Dec 2021

This branch believes that:

  1. Covid-19 is overwhelmingly transmitted by airborne spread – people breathe in the virus from the surrounding air.  Airborne protections are therefore essential to stop transmission.  Omicron, like all Covid-19 variants, is airborne.
  2. Airborne protection means providing clean air in the workplace and all indoor spaces.  As a society have the means to do this, and it can be implemented rapidly.
  3. While individual workers should take measures to protect themselves (such as wearing a face mask and getting vaccinated), only employers can provide clean air in the workplace, free of coronavirus. It is also their legal responsibility to do so.
  4. Ongoing high rates of Covid-19 transmission puts all workers at risk, essential workers and black and Asian workers have the highest risk. Given the threat of the new Omicron variant, and the failure of employers and government to protect workers from Covid-19, we call on Unite the Union to urgently develop a program of action to improve airborne protections in the workplace.
  5. Doctors in Unite are happy to assist the Union develop and implement the program of action.  A detailed briefing of the rationale and evidence behind the program can be found here. A summary leaflet can be found here

The Unite program of action should include

a) An information campaign aimed at the general union membership about why airborne spread is so important, and the tools we need to use to stop it happening.

b) Provision of hand-held CO2 monitors to Health and Safety reps to monitor ventilation, together with information and training.  These are accurate and simple to use with some basic training.

c) Making demands on employers to implement the following:

  • Review of risk assessments – all risk assessments must now include ventilation and air quality in all areas of the workplace.
  • Work with H&S reps to monitor ventilation and air quality and institute the necessary improvements.
  • Installation of air filters in all poorly ventilated areas in the workplace, where ventilation cannot be sufficiently improved.  These are highly efficient, inexpensive and readily available.
  • Provide all workers with FFP2 or better, face masks.  So called “surgical” masks leak at the sides and above the nose; they are not designed to protect against airborne spread.  FFP2 masks provide respiratory protection and are highly effective.  They are also cheap and readily available.
  • Set out plans to improve ventilation with fresh air in the medium term.  Measures i. to iv. above can be taken immediately and should not wait for ventilation systems to be installed.

d) These measures should be taken together with others which are already Unite Health & Safety policy, including the “hierarchy of controls” for preventing Covid-19 within the workplace.

Legal action

e) The union should also investigate the option of legal action against employers who refuse to implement airborne protections in the workplace.  It seems that airborne protections would be regarded as “reasonably practicable” under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.  A successful test case would have widespread implications across industry for Covid safety at work.