“Where's the duty of care?" Charity calls out employers leaving clinically vulnerable workers exposed

New survey lifts the lid on unsafe working conditions leaving vulnerable employees with asthma exposed to Covid-19

Two in five people with asthma (42%) leaving home to work are still being put in high risk workplace areas, despite telling their employer they are in the clinically vulnerable group,1 a survey by leading respiratory charity, Asthma UK has found.

All people with asthma are in the clinically vulnerable group. This is because having respiratory problems puts you at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from Covid-19.2

The survey of over 4,500 people with asthma, of whom 1,161 are currently going to work outside their home, also revealed:

  • Two thirds of people with asthma who are currently going to work outside their home don’t feel safe or aren’t sure about safety (61%). Of these,
    • Three quarters (76%) cannot socially distance at work
    • 1 in 5 (20%) are sometimes in contact with people with coronavirus because of their line of work, such as a hospital or care home worker
  • Over a third (36%) of workers with asthma who had to wear PPE also reported that it had made their asthma worse
  • A quarter (25%) of all workers with asthma said they weren’t aware that clinically vulnerable people should stay at home where possible and should not be encouraged to go back to their workplace 

The UK Government guidance for employers in England currently advises those in the clinically vulnerable group, including everyone with asthma, that if they cannot work from home, they should be offered the “safest available on-site role, enabling them to stay 2m away from others. If they have to spend time within 2m of others, [their employer] should carefully assess whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.”3

Our survey also revealed the mounting pressure that people have faced to return to work with 38% having felt or are now feeling pressure to go back before they think it’s safe. This includes 33% of people who are “shielding” because they have severe asthma and should not leave home apart from daily exercise.

The charity is now calling on all employers to heed the government’s advice and show a duty of care to employees, including those in the clinically vulnerable groups. Measures such as carrying out risk assessments and redeploying staff to safer areas can help towards minimising the risk of harm to employees, allowing them to work safely. It is also urging the government to raise awareness of the protections for vulnerable workers including people with asthma and spell out to employers what steps they can take.

Joe Farrington Douglas, Head of Policy and External Affairs at Asthma UK, said:

“It is unacceptable that there are employers who are putting the health of their workers at risk, especially when their employee has told them that they are at a higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus. We have heard from thousands of workers including teachers, nurses and supermarket workers with asthma who feel anxious and pressurised to return to work or who are working in high risk jobs right now with no reasonable adjustments, leaving them vulnerable to getting seriously ill. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, where is the duty of care?

“The government has said that people in the clinically vulnerable category, which includes people with asthma are advised to stay home where possible and not encouraged to go into work. If that’s not an option, your employer must carefully risk assess whether there are safer on-site roles where you can safely stay 2 metres from others. For more information, visit: https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/coronavirus-covid-19/

  -ENDS-

 Notes to Editors:

For more information or for interview requests, please contact Emma Warren on 07951 721393 or email ewarren@auk-blf.org.uk

References

  1. Asthma UK ran an online survey from 29th May to 3rd June to find out more about people with asthma and their experiences of employment during the pandemic and future employment concerns. The survey gained 4,959 responses (of whom 4,503 were in work before the coronavirus pandemic) and the figures in this release detail the results of the survey.
  2. Who’s at higher risk from coronavirus, NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/people-at-higher-risk/whos-at-higher-risk-from-coronavirus/
  3. Working safely during coronavirus (Covid-19), Gov.uk: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19

Anonymous free text responses from the survey:

  • I feel pressurised to go back to work because my employer has said they will stop my pay if I don’t but has not discussed how they can help me to reduce risk or help to make me feel safe.
  • I work in a hospital administration and my work involves being on the ward at times. This felt safer when we were a green zone but we have now become an amber zone meaning we may have people with Covid on the ward. This makes me feel more vulnerable. I have been offered redeployment if I want to accept a financial reduction so I have stayed where I am as Covid cases are down. I have been working all through the lockdown.
  • [I] work frontline in radiology in a very busy hospital screening and scanning lots of patients with symptoms or known covid.  If I know their infectious status then I can be shielded but not knowing this scares me i.e patients still awaiting swab results or outpatients who you do not know whether they followed government lock down and follow social distancing.  I have asthma I am on daily combined steroid and bronchodilators and have had 3 lots of oral steroids in last 6 months so felt with my job I should not have been patient facing or even at work. Risk assessments were carried out by my boss and a further one from occupational health who advised I wasn’t patient facing but due to staff [shortages] this was not achievable.  I still have daily contact with patients and have to cannulate them and do procedures. [I] feel so worried I could become ill.  Also have had some upsetting and nasty comments made by work colleagues and therefore wished I was told to shield as would have been less stressful and upsetting for me.
  • I am working from home 3 days a week but have been forced for about 3 weeks now to return to the office 2 days a week with no social distancing measures or hand sanitiser or masks or anything. People aren’t considered at risk unless they’ve got the shielding letter which is wrong and I’m soon going to be pushed to go back to the office 5 days a week which makes me anxious  and I feel is unfair as my whole job can be done from home.
  • I was shielding then taken off [the shielding list]. I’m a nursery nurse. I won’t be safe. I will be coughed at- no PPE is deemed necessary by government in nurseries. I’m not sure my job is safe. I’m very worried about not being safe and losing my job.

Asthma UK

Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. We are entirely funded by voluntary donations. For further information, please visit: www.asthma.org.uk