How we brought about improvements in the health and safety policy at the University of Oxford: Training matters for success

How we brought about improvements in the health and safety policy at the University of Oxford: Training matters for success


We are facing an ongoing pandemic and the government is minded for return to on-site work. Universities are deemed ready for an academic year for which face-to-face teaching is still the plan. This is why we need more trade union health and safety representatives. We also need to catch up with a lot of training and knowledge about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that evolves every day. Here, I will talk about the struggles we faced in Oxford UCU but also about the success we had once we started organising ourselves to recruit and train a new generation of health and safety (H&S) reps.

When input is given by the Oxford UCU H&S reps, the University of Oxford considers it

We are currently at the ninth version of the return to on-site work University guidance. It evolved from the first version released in June. These first versions prevented face coverings in research labs, though the governmental guidance said that employers should support their employees to wear a face covering if they choose to do so. In addition, instead of offering an alternative when face coverings were not allowed, departments were told that they may offer a face mask. The “may” allowed for holes that could lead to people being forced to work without a face covering, even if they wanted to, and not being offered an alternative. When the Oxford UCU committee asked for input from H&S reps, I wrote a two-page paper highlighting this issue by comparing the governmental guidance with the University guidance. Furthermore, I mentioned the lack of recognition of H&S reps. Both issues were changed in the version released that week, on 19 June.

Once I’ve seen that change is possible from the H&S rep level, I started a recruitment drive in the branch during which I highlighted our first success. The recruitment drive event initiated weekly meetings of the H&S reps group and interested members; soon, more and more reps joined.

In parallel, I designed a survey on the return to on-site work and the COVID-19 impact. This survey started informing our discussions. Therefore, when we were asked for input on the University’s draft on the face covering policy, we used the partial results of the survey and our own experience in our departments to formulate a paper. This paper was done with input from H&S reps and brought about important changes from the initial draft because the University listened. Among the changes proposed by our paper, I can mention that the final University of Oxford policy:

  • makes it clear that face coverings are not a substitute for the 2 m distance
  • reduces the exceptions and makes it clear that local rules apply in libraries and museums, instead of a blank central policy
  • states that the University will offer two face coverings to each member of staff at the start of the academic year
  • contains a FAQ and clarified the communications as repeat reminders 
  • states that people don’t have to bring a medical exemption

Face-to-face proposed branch position to be voted at the annual general meeting

However, now we are facing another challenge: the insistence on face-to-face teaching as part of the plans for the upcoming term. Yet again, the H&S reps came together, more trained and more full of knowledge and we put together a report containing results from our survey. Nine people contributed to this paper that will be discussed in the upcoming Oxford UCU annual general meeting. Based on the paper, we came up with recommendations that will be voted by the membership during the meeting. These recommendations were characterised as “good systematic organising work” by one of the country’s leading trade union H&S experts. The motion submitted for discussion follows:

The AGM notes that:

  • We are amidst an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with increasing cases both in the UK and worldwide
  • UCU has backed recommendations from the Independent SAGE committee calling for online teaching as a default position for University teaching
  • SAGE guidance argues that safe provision of student education needs to be based on a hierarchy of risk, which includes reducing in-person interaction and the development of clear strategies for testing and tracing, with effective support to enable isolation
  • Oxford UCU has run a survey with 824 respondents on return to on-site working and COVID-19 impact and the findings are summarised in the attached report.

The AGM recommends based on the attached report:

  • In order to ensure the health and safety of students and staff, teaching should, in the first instance, be done remotely. Faculty should not be put under pressure to do face-to-face teaching if they feel uncomfortable to do so.
  • For those students and staff who have to be on-site, regular testing should be ensured, independent of symptoms. The number of daily positive cases among staff and students should be made publicly available, like at the University of Manchester.
  • Enhanced cleaning should not be the responsibility of lecturers and tutors
  • Regularly test ventilation, ventilation filters, and sewage water to identify groups with infected individuals and prevent an outbreak
  • The University should ensure disposable face masks are available at all building entrances
  • Tutors and lecturers should not bear responsibility for the health and safety of students, nor a financial or increased workload burden
  • The University needs to ensure that staff have all the equipment needed for working from home
  • Line managers and departments need to consult with staff and communicate return to on-site work policies
  • Staff need more support from their line managers and departments to manage remote working
  • Equality should be taken into consideration when health and safety measures are implemented during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic
  • Staff must be consulted on how they are involved in the responsibility of teaching and training postgraduate researchers.

The AGM resolves to:

  • Adopt the above recommendations as the current Oxford UCU position regarding teaching during the pandemic including approved amendments resulting from discussions at the AGM
  • Submit these recommendations to the University

Training reps and active people is essential for trade union success

The above stories show that when you have reps who are not only active but get trained either through local knowledge exchange, online learning or the ongoing TUC courses, change is possible.

In my previously discussed local rules amendments, I proposed that H&S reps and officers have at least Health and Safety TUC Stage 1 or equivalent diploma. There are two follow-up courses Stage 2 and Occupational Health Diploma. I am currently enrolled in the ten-weeks Occupational Health Diploma for which I got paid leave from the University under the request that I further train our H&S reps. I was surprised to find out that training of UCU reps is encouraged by the University towards working together in a productive manner. Since I will sit in the University’s Consultative Committee on Health and Safety, as Oxford UCU representative for the upcoming academic year, the University welcomed my training towards making recommendations for updating the University safety courses offered for the staff: Training improves collaboration with the University. This is one of the many reasons I proposed the following motion for the upcoming annual general meeting:

The AGM notes that:

  • The Oxford UCU committee members and representatives are academics or academic-related staff who volunteer to support their colleagues in human resources, health and safety and other work-related matters
  • During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we all had to rapidly catch-up with health and safety terminology  and legislation
  • This year, the Oxford UCU branch received its first TULCRA – Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act – Section 188 notice and was and continues to be involved in the largest restructuring exercise in the history of the University of Oxford
  • Professional responsibility of trade union representatives is defined through TULCRA 1992

The AGM believes that:

  • In order to ensure proper representation, committee members need training at the beginning of their term in office
  • Statements and representations on the behalf of the members of the Oxford UCU branch/LA should be made by trained and/or experienced individuals.

The AGM resolves:

  • The Southern UCU regional office should ensure that the Oxford UCU committee participate in a day of general training including but not limited to: TULCRA, Health and Safety legislation, University of Oxford structure and relevant committees, local and national UCU rules
  • The two University Consultative Committee for Health and Safety representatives and the Health and Safety Officer should have or should obtain the TUC Health & Safety Stage 1 Certificate or equivalent within three months of their appointment 
  • All health and safety related statements should be prepared by the Health and Safety Officer and/or trained health and safety representatives

To conclude, having trained reps can help organising more reps, bring change through internal discussions because the University does take input and improves the collaboration with the University. This is why, as a branch, we need to require a minimum of training from our representatives.

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