There’s pages and pages we could write about this subject.
This is a brief summary of our thinking at this point in time, Friday 11th September.
What we’ve been doing
Over the last few months, we’ve attended multiple safety meetings and discussions about what a safe return to campus teaching and research looks like. Our branch is very aware of the fact that many of our members have been working on site throughout the pandemic, maintaining buildings, running payroll and providing security amongst other things. In addition to this, many technicians have also been working on site in what should be carefully controlled conditions, to facilitate students completing work from last year or academics carrying out research. Many people now are looking at the measures which need to be put into place for the foreseeable future.
Given all that, to talk about a “return to campus” makes little sense. We recognise though that for many members of University staff, there will be some requirement to carry out some or all of their work on site once the students return, generally at the end of September. In some schools this has already happened to some degree.
Health and safety is fundamentally about reducing risk by putting in place control measures after identifying hazards. The difficulty with pandemics is that the hazard is not visible, so most of the control measures can only be based on what we know is effective – reducing the time that people spend breathing each other’s air in confined spaces. Generally speaking, what you do outside in good ventilation is fine. It’s what happens inside that matters and unfortunately for a university, much activity normally takes place in rooms with large numbers of people close together.
The basis of assessing hazards and documenting what you propose to do about minimising the risk is risk assessments. Many hundreds of risk assessments have been produced. Some are written very well and some have been shockingly bad. Trade union safety reps have been involved in looking at those associated with summer activity i.e. things that have been happening on site since April and whilst we may have disagreed with much of this (student optional portfolios, essential activity? really?) we’ve had chance to push back on some of the activity which did not really fit the criteria or send the risk assessments back to be rewritten.
We’ve also been involved on-site inspections as much as we’ve been physically able to attend them, looking at one-way systems, lift and toilet notices, room capacities etc. This is what you would expect of trade union safety reps who try to assess hazards on behalf of our members, working alongside the University’s safety managers and technical teams, as we do under normal circumstances.
We have attended Safety And Wellbeing Committee meetings and loads of its sub-committee meetings to discuss, and sometimes argue about the situation and what needs to be done when students return. This has been quite difficult given the changing national situation. We spent a long time making the case for the need to wear face masks when the University was opposed to this, until the government decided this was necessary in shops and on public transport, which settled it to some extent.
More recently, we’ve been involved in Campus groups, to look at the many risk assessments associated with students returning, and this is where the situation in terms of our remit has started to change.
Where we are now
We’re now at the point where UEB are making decisions about what is going to take place on-site and what can still be done remotely and letting us know. We’ve made the point that the Safety and Wellbeing Committee, as a joint committee of managers, trade union reps and Students’ Union reps needs to have oversight over this process, but it’s starting to feel like we’re using these bodies to tell us what’s happening.
As such, timetables have been created with significantly reduced footfall on buildings, but many activities will open as usual, creating some sense of normality for the students on site. We don’t necessarily have a problem with much of this and accept that, provided the national situation does not deteriorate further (as many predict it will), all students should have some degree of face to face tuition, provided this is done with regard to control measures. (If we are going to not allow business, humanities and social science students any face to face teaching then we could have saved them a lot of money by asking them to stay at home for on-line material.)
We don’t have a problem with services being provided – childcare (sadly at Moulsecoomb only now), sports, hospitality etc, even if it means that the message for students of “please don’t hang around on site if you don’t have a timetabled session”, starts to fall apart if you’re just going to go to the Students’ Union shop, get a drink, go to the gym etc.
Where we do have some issues is the provision of student information desks and school offices. Even if this is essential activity that cannot be done remotely, we think it will encourage students to congregate in groups, especially in the first few weeks – exactly what we’re trying to avoid.
Where activity such as this does take place on site, we think the appropriate way of resourcing this is to have minimal opening hours with students encouraged to stagger their visit times. We also think that offices should be staffed by volunteers only.
The issue of who returns and who doesn’t obviously depends on what each individual does. Most office-based workers can remain working from home. Of these, some are stressed, isolated and have very good mental health-related reasons for returning to work. If this can be managed in sparsely populated offices then this should happen.
All people returning (or just wanting to return) should complete the questionnaire and insist that their line manager has a discussion about the contents ahead of any return to the campus.
Many people will be able to do a mixture of work at home and on site. It remains the case that all activity which can be done at home should be, which suggests that even student-facing staff should return home to send and answer emails, have team meetings etc. The whole point of where we’re at is to reduce the number of people in university buildings at any one time. Every person unnecessarily in a university building (staff or students) is contributing to the problem.
Congestion in buildings
Many people will be very nervous about the number of students returning to university buildings. We are concerned about this, particularly if students do not comply with the one-way systems, distancing and other measures in place to limit the potential spread of the virus. We’ve been told that student ambassadors will be recruited, although details have not yet been provided. Some universities have said that there will be sanctions for students not complying with the rules, but we seem to be evading any suggestion of this, assuming that students will all behave themselves.
It’s easy to be cynical about this, but any visit to shops and high streets will tell you that people, young and old, students and workers, will generally be managing to comply with the face covering rule but when it comes to distancing and one-way systems, sticking to the rules is less consistent.
I think we’re all expecting some issues with students congregating within buildings, especially if you can’t just (rightly) go wandering into the nearest library or canteen. What we’d like to see is some control over the number of people in a building at any one time. The school risk assessments seem to think that the timetabling arrangements are enough to deal with this issue. We’re not convinced.
The University is not going to do any testing, we were told at a Safety Committee. Seasoned committee members would have been thinking, actually that’s what we’re supposed to consider and then make some recommendations. Other universities have announced that they will test staff and students regularly, admittedly those with the labs to do so. Whilst this is not exactly crucial, and could cause other issues (false positives causing unnecessary disruption and false negatives causing unfounded reassurance), we think a blanket refusal to attempt to test people is not exactly sending out a positive message.
Maximising the flow of fresh air into buildings is crucial and virtually all risk assessments recognise that. What’s necessary is that staff and students do everything they can to keep windows open, even when the weather starts to deteriorate. We’ve not yet seen any written material that suggests what happens later in the year or had confirmation on who’s responsible for making sure this happens.
Policing of much of this is going to be the responsibility of the nearest, most senior member of staff. Our concern is that much like the policing of the smoking and vaping policy, this will be sporadic and like painting the Forth Bridge. We’ll have some idea of how things are going once the students are turning up, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be preparation done now.
So, if you are required to return to work, there are a few things we suggest you do:
- Fill in the questionnaire, (found here) and make sure you discuss your concerns fully with your line manager. Contact us for advice if you’re not happy with the outcome. If you have underlying health conditions these should be taken into account, as well as factors such as ethnicity and age. Managers should be aware of this and take it seriously.
- Consider the nature of the work you’re required to do on site. Is it essential or could you still do it remotely? If you’re not convinced then you should query this.
- Ask to see the risk assessments associated with the activity and the building. You should read, understand and query any aspects of this you are concerned with. If you have any major concerns then make sure your line manager know and contact Occupational Safety and Health and us.
- If you have significant health and safety concerns which could reasonably be seen to be a threat to your safety, and you don’t think they’ve been addressed, you have the legal right to refuse to work under section 44 of the Employment Relations Act 1996. Please let us know if it’s got to that stage!
In the meantime, we will continue to seek answers from UEB to our outstanding questions and concerns. Please feel free to get in touch if you need any advice and stay safe.
We’ll have another all-members’ meeting later in September, details to be announced soon.