Over fifteen thousand (15,263) working-aged people have died of Covid-19. Employers have registered just 387 as work-related deaths. That is just one example of the extraordinary efforts the boss class has made to deny and minimise workplace transmission.
In fact, at most of the high points in the pandemic indoor, social mixing has mostly been at work, or at someone else’s workplace — shop, place of education, public transport, hospital, or care-home. A lot of household to household transmission of the virus must have happened in a workplace, and a large number of those dead workers must have caught Covid-19 at work, certainly more than 2.5%.
A Hazards magazine analysis of infections in August-September 2020 found 40% of infected people thought they had caught Covid-19 at work or in an education setting and a further 30% thought it occurred whilst shopping or eating out (i.e. in someone else’s workplace). A very small proportion of infections was attributed to private socialising.
We know some workers are much more likely to die of Covid-19. At the extreme end, male bakers and flour confectioners have a 22.7 times higher Covid death rate than expected. Yet despite the evidence that risk is tied to occupation, the government body with the powers to investigate and enforce improved infection control at work, the HSE, has refused to classify Covid-19 as a “serious” workplace risk.
Since the start of the pandemic the HSE has issued over 120 times fewer enforcement notices than during the year before the pandemic and have weirdly outsourced the majority of inspections to unqualified staff working for two debt collection agencies. The one statutory body that could have done something about workplace transmission has swallowed the work-from-home bosses’ narrative that Covid-19 is an “incidental risk”, and the dead and seriously ill workers are just random and unstoppable tragedies.
There remain two obvious measures that could still radically reduce rates of transmission, even with the new Delta variant, the higher transmissibility of which puts into question all workplace risk assessments based on the old variants.
Full sick pay and aggressive action on presenteeism
The pandemic is a crisis of presenteeism: workers attending work when the should be isolating. Preventing all Covid-19 infection is difficult because people transmit the infection before getting symptoms. But isolation rules are not simply aimed at people who are symptomatic. Many categories of asymptomatic people are also told to isolate. The number has increased since the start of widespread lateral flow testing.
The problem is that compliance with isolation is astonishingly poor. Some estimate that fewer than one in five fully comply with isolation rules. Paying full sick pay so that low paid workers are not further impoverished for “doing the right thing” is the minimum that is necessary to tackle presenteeism.
In response to a 2019 RCN survey, over 84% of nurses said they had attended work when sick at least once in the last year. These are overwhelmingly workers on decent contracts with good sick leave, yet still they drag themselves to work potentially infecting colleagues and vulnerable patients or causing accidents.
Workers should demand employers go on the offensive against presenteeism as a basic health and safety concern. The starting point of this offensive is that no workers should suffer a detriment for taking sick leave: abolish punitive sickness monitoring practices, full sick pay. Beyond that, management could run information campaigns about the dangers of presenteeism and create a culture where workers feel duty bound to take time off when they are ill.
Controls for airborne transmission
Public authorities like Public Health England and the WHO have been extremely reluctant to accept evidence that the virus is airborne. At first virus precautions tended to focus on transmission via surfaces, and to emphasise cleaning surfaces, washing hands, etc. The balance of evidence is that in fact most transmission is through the air, and relatively little via surfaces.
In the NHS, control measures for preventing airborne transmission are only implemented in small areas where staff perform so-called Aerosol Generating Procedures. Those areas are extremely well ventilated and workers wear FFP3 respirator masks and goggles.
But the virus is airborne wherever there are people who are infected, and studies have shown that coughing, talking, and even breathing, are “aerosol generating procedures”. Under pressure from health-worker unions and professional bodies to review the evidence, PHE revised its position to accept airborne transmission on 22 September 2020. The WHO made the revision only on 30 April 2021.
Despite these revisions, the authorities have not demanded employers control for airborne transmission. Most workplaces have inadequate ventilation, and most frontline health workers and care workers treating Covid-19 positive patients have inadequate PPE for preventing airborne transmission.
Over many decades of workers’ struggle and organisation, our unions have won legal rights for health and safety reps to investigate workplace hazards and negotiate improved workplace safety.
Today around 100,000 health and safety reps stand watch over their workplaces. That’s 100,000 workers who have the legal right to conduct a thorough investigation into how their workmates have managed through the pandemic so far and to inspect current measures to control for airborne transmission.
The tools for such inspections are a well crafted survey and a CO2 monitor. Armed with those tools, safety reps can walk around workplaces, collect evidence for negotiating improved safety standards, build union organisation, and recruit new members and new health and safety reps. In the course of these walk-rounds health and safety reps will discover high-risk working practices and can formulate plans with workers for how to fix them.
Part of the reluctance of bourgeois institutions to admit to workplace infection must be due to penny-pinching. The boss-class is mostly still working from home and would rather avoid measures with ongoing costs like sick pay or improved ventilation standards.
That approach means very poor control of the virus in future waves. Even at best, we will probably have at least one further wave as vaccine protection from the initial jabs runs out. Nobody knows when that will happen, and we will only find out only when infection rates and hospitalisations start to rise.
The prioritising of profits and nationalism over global vaccine roll-out means ideal conditions for the emergence of vaccine resistant variants. And beyond Covid the accelerating rate of deforestation is increasing the risk of further zoonotic spillover and further pandemics.
Any worker in a unionised workplace can volunteer to become a health and safety rep and thus gain the legal rights to organise for improved safety on the boss’s time. We have the legal right to go on the offensive and build stronger workplace organisation, making our workplaces safer now and reducing the risk of future waves.
We should make every use of these hard-won rights. No one else is going to do it for us.
• Statutory Sick Pay is now £96.35 a week, not £95.85 as misstated inSolidarity 598.