Health and Safety representatives from UCU, Unison and Unite campus trade unions have written to University of Birmingham management, demanding they ‘pause’ their plans to introduce expanded in-person teaching from Monday 8 March. Safety reps argue this time is needed to carry out important COVID-19 safety checks and to ensure staff have the support they need to deliver more in-person teaching.
Union safety reps were only told about the University’s plans on Monday afternoon (1 March), at an informal last-minute called by university management, scheduled after the University Executive Board (UEB) had signed-off on the decision. Under health and safety legislation, the University has a legal duty to meaningfully consult with union safety reps before introducing changes which have the potential to impact on the health and safety of staff.
At the meeting safety reps raised significant concerns at the meeting over the lack of consultation, which the University is legally required to, as well as the practical feasibility of safely expanding in-person teaching with less than a week’s notice. Despite this, the University informed all students that same day that an expanded programme of in-person teaching would be delivered from 8 March.
After the meeting, reps wrote to University management, setting out their concerns in writing and calling for a pause in implementation to allow time for risk assessments to be updated to take account of the increased numbers of students on campus, especially in laboratory teaching spaces, where it can be difficult to maintain adequate social distancing. Union reps from UCU also made the same demand at subsequent meetings with senior management, but received no assurances that the University was prepared to change course.
As of Friday afternoon (5 March), health and safety reps have yet to receive a response a formal response to the concerns they have put to University management. It can therefore only be assumed that the University is planning to go ahead and implement expanded in-person without addressing the serious concerns union safety reps have raised.
Once again, the University appears to have made a major decision which may substantially affect the health and safety of staff without meeting its legal duty to consult with the legally recognised Health and Safety representatives. Sadly, this is consistent with the University’s approach throughout the pandemic.
Faced with complete intransigence from University management, the campus unions will continue to inform their members of their individual health and safety rights, including Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which grants workers the right to withdraw from and refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe.