On the ground: safety at work

A ‘safe’ working space left a vulnerable doctor at continuing risk

Location: UK
Published: Friday 12 March 2021
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‘COVID-safe’ and ‘COVID-secure’ are phrases we hear a lot and are likely to hear far more as society reopens. But the problem with claiming environments are ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ is that they appear to offer guarantees, when no such guarantees are possible.

The ‘safe’ office provided for one member was not nearly as safe as her employers could have made it.

The doctor was pregnant, from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, and had underlying health conditions. But her ‘safe’ office involved sharing with two consultants who were still seeing patients. They had to share phones, a kitchen and toilets. It was located within a hospital department which included procedures with a high risk of transmission of the virus.

She had originally asked to work from home, as per the advice from the occupational health department. As she was carrying out clinics over the phone, this should not have been a problem, but her trust said no. Instead it said she could stay at home with no work, but she wanted to support her colleagues, and so reluctantly agreed to come to work as long as the safe office was provided.

Her working environment made her deeply concerned about the risk to her and to her unborn baby. She took the matter up with a manager, in a series of phone calls and emails, but was told only that she could try to find an office for herself.

After a week of this, she contacted the BMA, and was so stressed and upset by this point that she had gone on sick leave. The BMA employment adviser immediately contacted the employer, reminding them of their obligations. In response, the employer belatedly started the process of helping the doctor to work from home.

But the damage to the working relationship had been done. The doctor’s initial, reasonable proposal to work from home had been turned down, while the trust’s commitment to provide a safe working environment had not been honoured. The doctor remained off sick, and no longer felt able to work, even from home.

The BMA adviser contacted the trust and suggested a way by which it might repair some of the damage done. She said that the period off sick, and through to the start of maternity leave, could be recorded as COVID special leave.

Given the doctor’s vulnerable situation, and the circumstances which had led to the absence, this would be a kinder outcome, given that doctors only receive a finite amount of sick leave.

The doctor said she had a great sense of relief. She thanked the adviser for her support and said the outcome had helped restore faith in her employer too.