Health and safety rights
Your health and safety at work is fundamental to us at KCL UCU. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been unprecedented danger to people's lives on university campuses, propelled at the start of every term with the movement of around 2.4 million students into and within the UK. KCL UCU is fundamentally committed to protecting everyone's lives, and has zero tolerance for any detriment to people's safety. We care for you, and are doing everything we can to make our university safe - including your right to teach online where this may be necessary and reasonably practicable.
150,000 Covid-19 hearts on the wall of St Thomas' Hospital, at King's College, London
Your rights to health and safety
Everyone has the right to a safe system of work, and at KCL this means three main things:
- you have an implied contractual right to work safely - even if your written contract (which your employer writes and photocopies) is silent, you are owed a duty of care by the employer;
- you are owed a statutory duty by the employer to work "without risks" and safely, "so far as is reasonably practicable". Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 s 2(2)(a);
- you have "the right not to be subjected to any detriment" if you insist on working safely where there is "danger which [you] reasonably believed to be serious and imminent". This can be "to protect himself or herself or other persons from the danger." Detriment includes any pressure, bullying or threats by an employer or manager - anything a reasonable person would perceive as detriment. What is dangerous does not depend on the subjective opinions of the employer. It depends on what you reasonably believe to be a serious and imminent danger. Employment Rights Act 1996 s 44(1A).
What does this mean in practice with Covid-19?
During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a shocking number of deaths after the September 2020 beginning of term. Employers said it was safe. The government said it was safe. It was not. The insistence on unsafe work, when alternatives of remote teaching were available, risked millions of people's health, and cost thousands of lives. This was foreseeable and unforgiveable. In 2021, we are not going back, and we will not allow a repeat. Many people have had a vaccine, but many people may reasonably believe that work at university is uniquely unsafe, because of the slow uptake among 18-24 year olds of vaccines, the absence of social distancing, and the emergence of the more transmissible and deadly "Delta variant". In practice:
- you are entitled to insist on safe work, including remote teaching, if you reasonably believe danger to your health is serious and imminent. This includes travel into work;
- you do not break your contract in any way when you insist on your statutory rights: your rights are conferred by Parliament and international law, and they always override a contract that an employer writes and photocopies;
- where an employer gives an instruction to work unsafely, when there are reasonably practicable alternatives, the employer and all managers involved break your contract: they violate the implied duty of a safe system of work, and expose themselves to legal proceedings;
- if you are subjected to any pressure, bullying or threats in relation to safety and health, immediately tell your union representatives in your department, and all of your colleagues, who may be in similar situations. Also email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- if you hear about other people engaging in illegal conduct, such as bullying, threats or any detriment in relation to safety, you are entitled as a "whistleblower" to be protected for making disclosures of unlawful activity.
If we care for each other, our students and ourselves, we can have a much better year than the last. Make sure you encourage your students to get vaccinated as soon as possible, to protect all of us as we return for the new year.