COVID 19 Emergency Health and Safety in HMCTS

04 May 2020

A summary of the key issues we have raised with HMCTS specifically in relation to Health and Safety.

Drinking Water

PCS raised concerns with HMCTS regarding a communication issued in relation to the instruction to remove water cooling devices attached to the main water supply. It left managers across HMCTS under the impression that there was no water safe for drinking on HMCTS premises and that consequently members must provide bottled water from home. As the communication was silent on the point that as an employer is required by law to provide an adequate supply of wholesome drinking water, readily accessible and conspicuously marked, many managers were either unaware of this obligation or that that the circumstances of the national emergency had not changed this obligation. 

A communication that was later issued to Delivery Directors setting out what water on HMCTS could and could not be drunk after PCS had raised and chased the issue regrettably was not shared directly with PCS by the employer and left significant numbers of our members believing they must supply their own water. Those travelling by public transport were finding themselves feeling dehydrated because they simply couldn’t carry the amount of water they would drink in a day. 

Whilst welcoming the employer confirming that an all staff communication would be issued to staff, we set out our concerns about how poor communication and consultation with unions had resulted in a significant anxiety and worry for our members that could have easily have been avoided. Had the original communication been shared we would have identified the point immediately, had the revised communication been shared we could have agreed the issuing of joint communications. We recognise that issues are fast moving and fast developing. That is why PCS has put in the means to be able to respond accordingly. HMCTS recognised our concerns and has indicated measure will be in place to ensure that consultation and communication is not in future bypassed

To clarify until further notice the only safe sources of drinking water in HMCTS premises are mains tap water (but not from a spray tap or shower), water coolers but only those fed by the mains or a canister in staff areas only, kettles and instant hot water taps and water from vending machines. Water should be available still for hearing rooms but not in jugs. In the circumstances court takers   must be permitted to take such breaks as necessary to ensure that you have drinking water available when needed.

Restraint and Removal

Members working for OCS security have raised issues around the lack of suitable and sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that would allow adequate protection for restraint and removal duties. PCS have raised concerns around the lack of PPE and the urgent need for guidance on alternative arrangements in the absence of full PPE. PCS have advised HMCTS that officers should be undertaking dynamic risk assessments and where it is assessed that it is unsafe to do so restraint and removal cannot be undertaken. HMCTS advised that they are in regular dialogue with OCS representatives about the need to ensure that PPE is provided urgently. Officers are reminded of the requirement to conduct individual dynamic risk assessments. HMCTS are urgently reviewing contingency measures and we will provide an update as soon as possible. 

In addition, HMCTS have advised that a regular workplace risk assessment is being conducted and this includes the requirement to undertake checks on PPE available. Risk assessment processes need to be practical and take into account the views of employees and their health and safety representatives. They should be communication to those upon who they impact. PCS has set out the significant risks that exist to staff should Officers assess restraint and removal as unsafe. If there is a shortage of PPE in your workplace then please contact us and we can escalate this. 

Social distancing

PCS raised concerns that the recommended minimum of two metre distancing is not being applied at all times. We raised specific concerns about court rooms where the set-up of benches and other fixed furniture does not facilitate social distancing. Lifts should be utilised by one person at a time and tea points/kitchen areas should be operated on a one in one out basis. We have made representations regarding the need to ensure our usher members are protected when booking in court users. One means of doing this could be the introduction of Perspex screens.

Where there are difficulties maintaining social distancing you should speak to your line manager in the first instance. If following a discussion with you line manager the issues continue then please speak to your local representative or contact the authors of this briefing.

Stress and Mental Health

It is evident from members that the current situation is understandably having a significant detrimental impact on mental health and stress and anxiety levels are at an all-time high. We have continued to make representations to employer representatives about the significant impact the current operational requirements are having on members’ wellbeing and have made clear that the current approach of business as usual is unsustainable. We will continue to make representations that work needs to be stood down to ensure the situation is as manageable as possible.

Anyone that is experiencing stress and anxiety should ensure that a conversation is held with line managers, or the manager’s manager as soon as possible. In addition, members are reminded of the need to ensure that stress is reported formally to their line manager. Once reported, there is a specific obligation to address it. Reporting ensures that the matter can be evidenced. PCS advises members to report on the following form to ensure it is recorded as an incident. 

The MoJ’s Employee Assistance Provider PA offer a wide range of confidential support and advice to staff on personal, social or work-related problems. They can be contacted on 0800 882 4102 and found on the intranet.

Home Working

PCS has issued advice to members regarding safe home working in the context of work station set up and display screen equipment. PCS has also issued a briefing in relation to tackling domestic abuse. Following concerns raised with members about proposals to increase the type of work that can be undertaken at home, we have raised the need for new work practices to be risk assessed including for stress and taking out that the position will be different for those members who are also juggling caring responsibilities and home schooling. We have advised that we do not agree with the employer that these issues are solely operational issues. Employers have a legal duty to actively consider stress as a hazard when there are changes to working practices within ‘risk assessments’ and to take action to eliminate and manage it. 

Since the meeting, we have received a number of communications from members regarding the development of or exacerbation of symptoms of repetitive strain injury such as

  • • pain in the fingers, wrists, arms or shoulders;
  • • stiffness;
  • • pins and needles or tingling;
  • • numbness;
  • • swelling;
  • • redness;
  • • loss of strength in your hand or fingers;
  • • cramps.

We will raise this at our next meeting. In the interim, we would advise any member experiencing any such symptoms to notify their manager and as soon as possible and commence a discussion about the changes to their working practice to address this. This may mean making an application to abstain from display screen work until medical advice has been taken and reasonable adjustments have been put in place. The matter should also be recorded as an accident at work using the form referenced above.

Fire and Incident Control

Members have raised concerns with PCS that they were being mandated by managers to undertake FICO (Fire and Incident Control Officer) duties and then take on FICO responsibilities daily or on a rota basis often in circumstances where this was in addition to other responsibilities and changes to working practices. 

PCS has confirmed with the employer that this role and a voluntary one and remains one irrespective of the pandemic. Whilst you can be asked, you cannot be compelled to undertake training or to take FICO duties   Whilst the potential for members to be required to undertake the duties may be low, we are aware that many members do not feel confident to do so or believe it is incompatible with other responsibilities they have generally or have taken on as a result of the pandemic.

Members have reported to PCS that conversations as to how these responsibilities might be picked up if a member is required to perform FICO duties are not taking place.  PCS maintain if you are asked, then your manager must have such a conversation first. It may put your mind at rest, but if it does not, then you are entitled to say no. 

Plans for Easing Lockdown

We have requested that the employer starts to run twin track consultation with us as soon as possible. Not only do we need to address the health and safety issues that are arising as a result of lockdown but we also need to commence consultation on safe working as and when lockdown eases.

We have advised the employer that we believe they need to:

  • Produce risk assessments for all working practices before lockdown is eased and to ensure that can happen, it must start now
  • Identify in consultation with PCS the risks which exists and the specific steps needed to mitigate those risks including through social distancing. These steps must be in place before there is any increase in footfall into HMCTS sites.
  • Agree local risk assessments with trained PCS health and safety representatives
  • Complete and communicate the above to all staff before any there is any increase in footfall into HMCTS sites be that from staff or court users.

HMCTS have agreed to twin track consultation and an increase in the frequency with which they meet with us during the emergency.

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