Coronavirus: The vital role of school cleaners

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, national secretary, UNISON

As the coronavirus crisis continues, the risks to school cleaners seem to have been forgotten, says Jon Richards

If you read my articles for SecEd regularly, you will know that a recurring theme is the way that different staff groups are treated in schools – particularly those in the lowest pay grades.

One group I have wanted to write about for a while is school cleaners – a group too often ignored until their value suddenly becomes apparent, as has been the case of late. Having worked in the fields of HIV and health and safety, I can tell you that I value these colleagues greatly.

At the time of writing, there are more than 20 schools closed due to concerns about pupils and/or staff who may have had exposure to COVID-19.

I am not questioning why these schools have closed – but the way that a couple of them have treated their cleaners does raise concerns.

When considering closure, most of the schools contacted the relevant authorities and introduced sensible procedures; some engaged with their local union reps to help the process.

However, some simply shut their doors and told their cleaners to do an immediate “deep clean” – suggesting that all they required was a mask and gloves to do so.

Unsurprisingly some of the cleaners involved were worried at the risks they faced and contacted us.

We checked for relevant government advice but could not see any specific information on the government websites. So we went straight to colleagues in the Department for Education (DfE) who have helpfully been providing us with regular up-to-date information. We highlighted the gap and suggested that schools ought to be doing risk assessments in these circumstances before deciding on a course of action.

The DfE told us that schools should contact their local Health Protection Team. In the DfE’s view, they were best placed to advise as each situation would be different (for details of your local team, see further information).

We responded by saying that consistent advice across the local protection teams would be very helpful – especially as cleaning staff are not always in a strong position to argue with school management. Cleaning staff are vulnerable to snap decisions and so the more detailed and relevant any guidance is, the more it helps to protect the lowest paid and most undervalued staff.

To be fair, the DfE promised to take this up with the relevant public health bodies and subsequently specific and helpful advice was issued about decontamination in non-healthcare settings (see further information).

Overall a good result, but I remain surprised that some schools had not chosen to do an initial risk assessment before instructing their cleaners.

I know it is a bit dull, but health and safety and the basics of risk assessment come to the fore at times like these. A risk assessment is a simple process. Very basically: identify the hazard; identify all those who may be harmed and how; identify what risks they face and how these can be avoided – or if not avoided then reduced; record the assessment and review it regularly. For more, see the Health and Safety Executive’s website.

In this case, all the schools had identified the risk and that pupils and staff could be harmed. However, some did not identify the potential risks to cleaning staff.

The hierarchy of risk measures mean that the first thing to consider is avoidance. If the school is going to be closed for a while, might it be sensible to hold off cleaning until just before it reopens, as viruses and bacteria die off outside of a host body over time?

However, if the school is not going to stay closed for long then maybe a specialist company should be called in (although beware as we have heard that some cowboy firms are seeking to cash in).

Finally, perhaps the risk assessment shows that the risk is very low and so a belt and braces clean is appropriate – but this also means that staff are given the right personal protective equipment, such as properly fitting masks and gloves.

As our knowledge of the virus increases and the public health advice gets better, we will all be able to take a more informed risk-based approach to new situations.

Hopefully one of the consequences of this outbreak – alongside some people learning how to wash their hands – is recognition of the vital role that cleaners play in everyday life. They should not be taken for granted.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary for UNISON.

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