Health and Safety

In the view of the University of Birmingham branch of UCU, our discussions with the University of Birmingham, over Health and Safety, have been done in such a way that we have insufficient information, with insufficient time remaining before term starts, that we need to set out in writing our core concerns.

All available information now suggests that universities should be moving towards online-only teaching as a default, as any other alternative will not be safe for staff, students, or the surrounding community.

As such, we write now to set out our current view in writing regarding the Health and Safety procedures of the University, especially in the context of what seems to be a concerted effort to move people back to working on campus – including academic teaching staff, academic-related professional services staff, and support staff.

In sum, we are not reassured that the procedures in place are sufficient to avoid risk for staff returning to work on campus.

Alarmingly, it now also seems that many, possibly most, departments across the University are not even carrying out ‘return to work on campus’ meetings, which we had previously been reassured would be akin to a personal risk assessment for each staff member.

We reiterate the view already expressed by UCU nationally, that teaching should be online-only as a default, and only on campus if absolutely necessary.

Of particular concern in terms of University of Birmingham health and safety arrangements are:

Lack of adequate measures to protect against transmission of Covid-19 including lack of proper ventilation, lack of PPE for staff, lack of mandatory face coverings in class, lack of detail on cleaning of class room facilities, inadequate social distancing in some settings, and insufficient testing capacity.

Given that buildings will need to be closed and courses moved online as cases are confirmed through the term it surely makes sense to plan for online delivery from the outset to avoid further disruption and to ensure that we are all safe.

In particular, we have not been provided with risk assessment for teaching spaces and we are therefore concerned about the implication that these plans still aren’t finalised. That being said, we know enough to know that the plans for face-to-face teaching pose real risks to everyone involved and the scientific advice strongly supports online only at present.

This is in line with recent UCU national position, that there should be no default face-to-face teaching.

It also echoes the views of Independent Sage – that all teaching should be online where possible.

We also note that by making face to face teaching and office working widespread, the University is putting greater strain on public transport and other public services, which increases the risk to the wider community.

Our position on return to “rota’ based office working and on-campus working for support staff: as above, we believe that recent advice to staff from the University stating that there is an ‘expectation’ that staff will return to the office in order to return to ‘normality’ and create a ‘vibrant campus’ experience are unnecessary and reckless. Particularly where this relates to staff who clearly are able to work from home.

Of particular concern in terms of University of Birmingham health and safety arrangements are:

Lack of adequate measures to protect against transmission of Covid-19 including lack of proper ventilation, lack of detail on how often shared facilities will be cleaned, and insufficient testing. We also note that some support staff will be working directly with students in enclosed spaces, in which case the above concerns in relation to small group teaching also apply.

Those who are perfectly able to work from home should clearly continue to do so, with work only returning to campus when there is a clear reason for it to be on campus. Campus “vibrancy” and team cohesion are not clear reasons for workers to return, particularly when staff are being instructed to remain in their offices and online meetings are likely to remain the only practical way for all staff to participate in team meetings at the same time.

Cases on campus and on campus transmission: Finally, we are disappointed to discover that the University appear to be stepping back from previous commitments to communicate confirmed cases of Covid-19 with staff.

We need absolute transparency on this issue if staff and students are to trust that campus is safe. We call on the University to honour commitments made to communicate cases with all staff. This should include all teaching buildings wherever there are suspected cases until either the individuals have been tested or the building closed and deep cleaned.

We will be informing our members that we have these concerns and that until they are resolved we do not believe the University to have satisfactorily dealt with the Health and Safety implications of returning to work on campus.