People working on the frontline with some of the most vulnerable in Derry during the coronavirus pandemic have raised concerns about their personal protection.
Frontline workers on the Supporting People programme help people who have been homeless or a rough sleeper, those with a physical or sensory disability, people at risk of domestic violence, individuals with alcohol and drug problems, people with learning difficulties, teenage parents, elderly people and many more.
It enables vulnerable people to live independently in the community, in all types of accommodation and tenure.
However, the Department for Communities (DfC) which oversees the Supporting People programme has said that protective gear will not be provided based on advice from the Public Health Agency (PHA).
The issue of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has become much-talked about in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic with health workers in most need of gear which is in short supply.
There is a belief that all frontline workers should be adequately protected, including voluntary and community workers and shop staff.
Health and Safety Executive UK guidelines state that: “Every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective.”
Derry Trades Union Council (DTUC) believes the DfC position on PPE is ‘unacceptable’ as these workers provide personal caring duties such as showering and washing clothes.
Support services include Damien House, Women’s Aid, House on the Wells, Simon Community, Ramona House, Jefferson Court and Shepherds View Young Persons Project.
Speaking to the Derry News, one frontline worker said: “Two of my work colleagues are now self isolating.
“I have just finished a 12 hour shift and we still do not have everything we need to protect ourselves from this virus.
“I have to return to work tomorrow, we are all worried and no one seems to know what is going on.”
Derry Trades Union Council says it has been contacted by a growing number of workers employed in the Community and Voluntary Sector who have raised concerns around the lack of or unfit for purpose Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) being made available to them by their employers.
These workers, many of whom are on ‘very low pay’, do not have the luxury of working from home which leaves them further exposed to the current public health emergency, COVID-19.
The Supporting People Programme is funded by the DfC and it is administered by the Housing Executive on the Department’s behalf.
A spokesperson said: “The PHA does not currently recommend the use of PPE for support workers providing Supporting People services.
“The PHA recommends that workers follow good hand hygiene practices, and that there is regular and thorough cleaning of the accommodation.
“This position is however being kept under constant review by the PHA due to the rapidly evolving situation.”
Meanwhile, the NIHE said each organisation funded through the Supporting People programme is responsible for their contingency planning and staffing.
In order to support this, it has shared Public Health and Central Government Guidance and identified money from the Supporting People 2019/20 budget to distribute to Supporting People provider organisations who receive a single source of public funds.
This will support the implementation of Covid-19 contingency plans in the short term and will be available to support voids for isolation, personal protection equipment, extra cleaning costs and staff cost pressures.
“The Housing Executive also continues to engage with our sponsor Department, the Department for Communities, on a bid for additional funding, which would be made available to Supporting People provider organisations in respect of increased staffing costs in 2020/21,” a spokesperson added.
However, DTUC Chair Niall McCarroll believes the health, safety and welfare of all workers should be risk assessed.
“A proactive forward planned approach should be in place - but this isn't the case with too many employers. Health and safety in the workplace and the welfare of workers should be the number one priority for all employers.
“Fortunately, workers who are organised, in a trade union and were their employer has a partnership agreement with their union are best placed to deal with this pandemic. DTUC want to put on record our appreciation to those employers who are addressing this current crisis whilst working with their trade unions colleagues.
“DTUC are not surprised to find that those community sector based organisations that have always been anti trade union are also the same organisations that are inadequately prepared to protect their workers at this time.”
He added: “The approach taken by some employers towards the health, safety and welfare of their workers has been exposed by COVID-19.
“Frontline workers employed through the Supporting People Programme are one such group of workers who are particularly at risk. Due to the vulnerable and at risk people they support these workers must continue to present for work.
“The work they carry out every day changes lives, enhances life opportunities and reduces significant risks for a growing number of people.
“These workers are largely unseen, they are the frontline against the root causes of homelessness and support those in our society who already find themselves socially isolated.
“The Health and Safety Executive state that, employers should, therefore, provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and training in its usage to their employees wherever there is a risk to health and safety that cannot be adequately controlled by other means.”
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