Legal rights and coronavirus: Safety protections for transport workers
With the effects of the coronavirus continuing to impact our daily lives, particularly for those classed as key workers, we aim to provide useful discussion of your legal rights. Workplace injury solicitor Ross Whalley discusses the safety precautions which should be considered for those keeping our transport networks going.
Posted on 09 April 2020
Transport workers clearly meet the Government’s definition of key workers. They will play a vital part in helping society through the pandemic in providing other key workers and the public access to places for medical need such as hospitals, work (where this cannot be done from home) and shopping for basic necessities.
Protective equipment for NHS workers has been headlining in the national news, but given their interface with large numbers of the general public, protection for transport workers should not be overlooked. London's Mayor Sadiq Khan correctly stated that it was "really important we treat public transport workers as heroes". It is clear that hard-working transport employees are making a courageous effort at the frontline of the fight against this pandemic, and it is only right that they are afforded all reasonable protections.
On 8 April 2020, changes in methods for London bus operating procedures were announced following the deaths of nine bus workers who had contracted coronavirus. This took the total to 14 public transport workers who had died in the capital after contracting Covid-19.
Unsurprisingly, reports have also emerged that London bus drivers are reported to be scared of working due to their lack of basic virus protection from their employers.
London is not the only city to be affected , with other transport worker deaths recorded elsewhere, including Birmingham.
Transport unions have been calling for more action as a result of, what they consider to be, inadequate protections afforded to workers. Unite the union, which represents 20,000 London bus workers, indicated that "more action is urgently needed".
The protections that all transport employers should be considering for their employees include:
Essential work only
Employers should only conduct activities and tasks that are necessary for running the essential services for key workers and movement of freight during the emergency. Workers should only be deployed to tasks that are deemed as essential.
Most buses in London have both front and middle doors, with passengers usually using the front ones for boarding. Transport for London (TfL) are running a four-week trial using middle-door only for boarding to help their employees avoid close public contact. There have been calls for locked front doors with passengers no longer entering the bus next to the driver with immediate effect. Passengers are also to be discouraged from sitting near to drivers and transport workers. Employer should consider isolation zones and zoning-off seats.
Limit customer numbers
Whilst the number of people using buses in the capital has fallen by about 85% compared to this time last year, to reduce numbers further, the maximum number of passengers (per train carriage or bus) should also be limited to enable all passengers to be situated at least two metres apart from each other and the transport employees. Transport employers should also be encouraging travellers to only use the public transport network if absolutely necessary and should encourage those who absolutely must commute to avoid the rush hours.
Increase equipment hygiene
Anti-viral disinfectant should be used to clean the interiors of vehicles on a daily basis. Unite shop stewards are calling upon TfL for access to any deep clean that takes place to reassure bus workers that the vehicles had been properly cleaned. Employers should review cleaning agents used. On Manchester’s Metrolink tram system, employers have changed cleaning fluids used. This has meant that the usual fluid used, an antiseptic product that kills bacteria such as MRSA, has been exchanged for one containing viricidal agents, known to help guard against viruses.
Increase personal hygiene
Employees should also be encouraged to wash their hands regularly. Outside of London’s oyster card system, transport employers should request that customers pay by non-cash means whenever possible. London’s 80 bus garages had procured hand gel for drivers and other staff but there remains a reported lack of sanitising wipes that drivers could use both in the garage and out on journeys with the public. Employers should ensure that toilet and washing facilities are open and readily available for transport workers at all locations so that they can comply fully with government advice.
Staff should be provided with appropriate PPE. Such protection is often seen as a last resort where other control mechanisms fail. Coronavirus has proved to be so contagious that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), is calling for employers to provide gloves, eye defenders and masks for all workers in close proximity to each other and passengers. Likewise, the time spent within two metres must be minimized and only for the purpose of the task. If full appropriate PPE is not available then work should not commence. Where appropriate, employers should install protective Perspex boxes and screens to protect staff further. Dr John Ashton, a public health expert, has insisted that both screens and face masks are essential for bus drivers. Protective Perspex booths have not yet been installed on all buses and so this should remain a priority for transport employers.
For those transport workers who have already sadly lost their lives due to the coronavirus the above recommendations come too late, but as this crisis seems set to continue for months to come it is imperative that essential transport workers are given every protection to enable to them to carry out their roles safely to avoid further illness, death and the suffering of families left behind.