Deficiencies in the protection of operational staff in the water sector from exposure to COVID-19

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2021 Virtual Special Water, Enviroment & Transport Conference
14 April 2021
Carried as Amended

This conference notes that the health, safety and wellbeing of workers providing services in the Water, Environment and Transport Sectors � as well as in the other more prominent sectors such as Health – has been paramount to UNISON during the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue to be into the future.

The Water Industry Sector has had particular concerns relating to:

1. Effective and timely supply of PPE (in particular face masks) and hygiene supplies

2. Activities of a small minority of workers placing other workers at risk

Conference observes that a search for �PPE� on the website of the water sector regulator Ofwat yields only six results, none more recent than 2018. A similar search of the website of Water UK (the trade association which represents the major water companies of the UK) lists four results from 2017 or earlier. The report by Frontier Economics commissioned jointly by Ofwat and Water UK (published in December 2020) �Economic impacts of COVID-19 on the water sector� fails to investigate either the direct or indirect impacts on water company employees.

Conference also recognises that the limited supply of PPE in the initial stages of the pandemic had to be channelled to people working on the front line in the NHS. This was of course necessary, but it was to the detriment of key workers in other sectors including Water, Environment and Transport.

At some water companies, rollout of PPE in certain areas of wastewater and water operations was poor � though at others it was good. Some teams had to wait weeks, others got a good supply very quickly. This was caused by a combination of various factors at each water company. In addition to low quantities of items such as the required grade of face mask being available in the supply chain – these may have included (despite the best endeavours of the water companies):

a. Lack of nationally-coordinated PPE procurement for the water industry, because of its fragmentation into private companies

b. Just-in-time procurement practices, leading to minimum stock levels of PPE at the outset

c. Out-of-date items being held in stock that could not be used

d. Emergency procurement (to protect workers quickly), through new channels leading to the unintended purchase of items that were not of sufficient quality

e. Centralised holding of available stock, leading to distribution problems

f. Poor pandemic-related provisions in business continuity plans

g. Risk assessments focussing on office-based workers and appearing to ignore the risks to field-based staff

Furthermore it is noted by this conference that despite the best efforts of the water companies, and the managers of subcontractor organisations, the activities of some workers have at times put other workers at risk. In particular:

i. Contrary to directives about only doing essential activities, doing non-essential work

ii. Not following the water companies� or subcontractors� protocols with regard to COVID-19

iii. Not wearing the correct PPE, including facemasks

iv. Not social distancing

Conference therefore calls on the WET SGE to:

A. Lobby Ofwat to require that all water companies must have adequate pandemic-related provisions in their five-year plans, with particular relation to a safe working environment for all employees.

B. Work with Labour Link to emphasise the Labour party�s policy to bring the water industry back into public ownership. In particular the benefits of nationally-coordinated procurement and the reversal of outsourcing should now include the improved health and safety of workers (through better PPE provision, and the direct overseeing of all workers) in addition to the economic benefits.

C. Work with Water UK so that constructive discussion can lead to greater worker involvement in the scrutiny of risk assessments across all companies in the water sector. In particular this should focus on improving the elimination, reduction and mitigation provisions that these documents contain which relate to pandemic-associated risks.

D. Work with the HSE to provide the union with greater input in shaping the guidance that the HSE publishes, and its direct relevance to workers in the water sector. In particular, efforts should be made to ensure that such guidance covers water companies� responsibility for the health and safety training for subcontractor workers, and the management of subcontractors to ensure protection of all workers from COVID-19.