The University and College Union (UCU) has accused the University of Oxford of “flouting health and safety guidelines” with regard to the reopening of universities in October.
The claim follows a request from the Oxford branch of the trade union, sent to University of Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson on 17 July, asking the university to share health and safety risk assessments.
Responding to the UCU’s request on 24 July, the University of Oxford’s human resources director Julian Duxfield wrote that the university took “the safe return to onsite working (RTOSW) of all of our employees very seriously” and that meetings with the three recognised trade unions were being held every seven to ten days to discuss in detail its approach to the reopening of University buildings.
The health and safety of all who study and work here is our highest priority – The University of Oxford
In his letter, Mr Duxfield told the UCU Southern Region official Moray McAulay there was not “a single risk assessment document covering the entire University. Risk assessments are conducted on a departmental or unit basis using a template which is has been developed in dialogue with the trades unions and via pilots. The trades unions have full visibility of all the guidance that local management teams use to develop their own risk assessments” and that it was “not practical or useful to share all risk assessments with the Oxford UCU”.
With regard to individual risks when staff return to campus, Mr Duxfield said the university was “developing a process to enable individuals to have a clearer view of their individual Covid-19 risk profile so that appropriate decisions can be taken in individual cases.”
Addressing UCU’s request for specific documentation on, for example, plans for specific buildings, he said “It is not a reasonable approach for the UCU to expect to receive operational outputs from each individual RTOSW risk assessment process. This is because the University as an employer has the responsibility to take the necessary action to meet its legal obligations, and does not have to consult on specific management actions. The HMG guidance on employee consultation encourages consultation, but is clear that employers retain the right to manage.
“The health and safety of all who study and work here is our highest priority. We continue to monitor the situation carefully and have measures in place to ensure that the University works together with the unions to ensure a safe return of all our staff. We would like to continue with the informal engagements we have established thus far, and we are happy to address any specific questions or concerns should they arise.”
The statutory duties and government guidance regarding risk assessments and consultation over health and safety are clear – Dr Jo Grady
“It is shocking to see the University of Oxford flouting health and safety guidelines in the middle of this pandemic, whilst claiming the health of staff and students is its highest priority,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.
“The statutory duties and government guidance regarding risk assessments and consultation over health and safety are clear. The university now needs to work with us to ensure it can safely reopen in October, rather than putting the safety of staff and students at risk.”
In June, the The Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association and higher education trade unions released a joint statement on working safely on campus through the pandemic.
This stated: “UCEA HEI member institutions commit to consulting with recognised trade unions on staff health and safety, and about how the institution will manage risks from Covid-19 including regarding the re-opening of departments and services. HEIs should work jointly with trade union representatives, staff and students to resolve issues.”
The government said it welcomed the agreement between UCEA and the sector unions, which was also incorporated into the Universities UK briefing document Principles & considerations: Emerging from lockdown.
UCU has set out five tests for HE employees’ safe return to campus: a reduction in cases, planning for social distancing, comprehensive testing, university-wide health and safety strategies “completed in consultation with recognised staff unions”, and protection for the most vulnerable.
“The University is surprised by the national UCU’s claims as we are currently meeting every few days with our three recognised unions, including the UCU, to discuss in detail our approach to reopening,” said a statement from the University of Oxford today (3 August).
“These meetings have been part of a regular constructive dialogue about the principles of safe return to onsite working, in line with government guidelines. This has included the University seeking and accepting feedback from the unions on HR and Health & Safety guidance documents in advance of sharing the guidance with staff.
“As the University works towards reopening and continuing our vital role in world-class education and research, our number one priority is the health and well-being of our staff, students and local community. Staff are being kept fully informed of the extensive protective measures being introduced, including detailed guidance on risk assessments and returning to safe on-site working, which were developed in consultation with our unions.”
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