Some employers only paying lip service to Black staff’s Covid fears

Public-sector employers in the East of England must ensure all staff have robust, up to date risk assessments to protect the health and lives of Black workers as coronavirus infections rise, says UNISON today.

It follows newly published UNISON research showing more than half of Black* staff (57%) working in the NHS, care homes and schools weren’t given Covid-19 risk assessments, even after the height of the pandemic.

The poll of more than 10,000 employees also found over a third (36%) of those who had gone through the process – to identify the hazards staff face and decide if the risks to health are too great for workers to be in those roles – felt they didn’t identify the unique threats Black workers face, UNISON says.

Staff have been very concerned employers aren’t taking the risk assessment seriously – despite evidence from Public Health England that Black people are more likely than white ethnic groups to be hospitalised or die from the disease, says UNISON.

More than three-quarters of Black workers (77%) reported that they hadn’t had a conversation with their manager about the workplace Covid risk, leaving staff anxious and scared, the union says. (Data was gathered from workers over a 16-day period up to 5 July, long after cases had peaked and the increased risks for Black staff had become apparent.)

Underlying health conditions and older age – two factors associated with increased likelihood of Covid-19 deaths – were high among Black staff who took part. One in three (33%) reported having an underlying health condition.

More than two fifths (46%) were 50 years old or more, and 31% were between 40 and 49, putting them in the age categories more at risk from the disease, adds UNISON.

Worryingly, nearly half of employers (47%) employers didn’t take additional vulnerabilities such as underlying health conditions, age, pregnancy or living with people who are shielding into account. This is despite the disproportionate number of Black staff working in high-risk frontline health, social care and local authority jobs, the union says.

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves and aprons, has been widely recognised as a way for staff to protect themselves from the virus.

But the survey reveals some Black workers who felt they needed PPE weren’t getting it, leaving them dangerously exposed, the union says.

More than two-thirds (67%) said they needed PPE to keep safe at work, but only half reported being issued with the correct level of kit.

UNISON Eastern regional secretary Tim Roberts said: “Lives depend on employers doing more than the bare minimum to keep staff safe.

“Mandatory, robust risk assessments need to be in place. They should be policed by the Health and Safety Executive and rogue employers named and shamed.

“The stakes are too high for employers to get this wrong. As we see Covid infections rising once again, managers must commit to listening to staff and making changes that will protect health and save lives.”

A total of 290 UNISON members from across the East of England (Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk) completed the survey which ran across the UK from 19 June to 5 July 2020.

The majority of respondents (73%) were women, more than half (59%) work in healthcare, and the rest in local government (23%) and other parts of the public sector.

Since the snapshot survey was conducted the NHS has completed risk assessments for 96% of Black staff in England .

Full survey results

*UNISON uses the term Black in a broad, political and inclusive way for people with a shared history and experience of racism and reduced opportunities. The use of the term Black is broadly consistent with the term BAME.