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Exceptional times call for adaptable work measures, but safety should be first

Blog by John McGowan, General Secretary of SWU

Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, we are certainly in exceptional times. Nonetheless at SWU and BASW we are continuing to support members in this difficult period and the individual safety for social workers should be paramount. 

Covid-19 presents a serious threat individually to our health, but also more widely with the people that we work with and the risks and challenges that this can create. 

Our members should follow the Home Visit guidance for Social Workers and the Health & Safety document (and subsequent advice for other areas of practice) and Government advice which lay out steps to be taken to optimise safety.

The COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways an unprecedented situation. Currently, it is especially important for employers to be proactive in implementing public health guidance and taking reasonable precautions to alleviate workers' concerns. Employers must also be aware of their specific obligations to Social Workers regarding unsafe work refusal and ensure that such refusals are appropriately handled in full compliance with occupational Health & Safety legislation.

I have been writing to Local Authorities emphasising this.

Although normal practices may not be feasible, we know from regular contact with our members that Social Workers are trying to practice according to ethical and social work values despite major challenges. I applaud this for it is still important to act sensibly and professionally. Social Workers should strive to maintain and follow BASW Covid-19 Pandemic – Ethical Guidance for Social Workers.

The primary objective of the BASW Code of Ethics is to express the values and principles which are integral to social work, and to give guidance on ethical practice.

The big question then - Should a worker exercise their right to refuse unsafe work?  ‘YES’ is the answer particularly if there is a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  Fundamentally, that fear of impending and serious danger in circumstances where all government guidance, including on PPE and social distancing, is not being followed?  Then ‘YES’ needs to be the case. 

Health and Safety legal regulations give specific protections to staff particularly if in imminent danger.  These extend to Social Workers having the right to remove themselves from situations/ home visits that they reasonably believe pose a serious and imminent danger to themselves or members of the public. If you believe that this is the case then you should notify your line manager immediately, inform them of the risks, and let them know the actions you believe need to be taken to protect yourself, colleagues and the public.

The employer then has the duty to internally investigate the situation (typically in the presence of the refusing worker and a Health and Safety representative or worker representative); recording the circumstances of the work refusal and investigation; and ensuring any necessary action to remedy the danger is taken. The present problem though is that The Employment Rights Act 1996, is not equipped for the scale of the crisis at hand. Whilst provision is made for employees to claim that they have been unlawfully subjected to a detriment on Health and Safety grounds the provisions remain unclear and untested in these circumstances, resulting in a lack of certainty on both sides. 

The complexities do not end there, however. There are also multiple other issues, including reasonable adjustments arising from disability, or particular requirements for disabled workers.  It seems emergency employment legislation is necessary with the very clearest of guidance but this will be another battle.

Our social work members continue to be supported by the skilled Advice and Representation (A&R) team and never have members really needed the support of a union and a professional association dedicated and knowledgeable about social work for guidance and support more than now.

Representatives from the Advice and Representation (A&R) Team have provided some Frequently Asked Questions on issues that come to the fore from recent communications with members.

If you have concerns with Health and Safety, this needs to be reported to your line manager immediately. ​ SWU/BASW A&R is available to discuss the many issues arising from the current COVID-19 crisis. You can contact the A&R Service on 0121 622 8413.


Further information