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Call for safety at call centres

By Phil Taylor - Posted on 18 February 2021

In a bid to reduce cases of coronavirus, those who can work from home are still being asked to do so  – but others have been at their desks throughout. Here, Phil Taylor looks at call centres, their risks and what can make them safer as Covid19 continues to circulate.

Recognition throughout the pandemic has been given to those seen as at the ‘front line’ - medical staff and support staff in the NHS as well as shop workers, delivery drivers and pharmacists who are amongst those working to provide essential services we all rely on.

Yet there are other groups of workers, vitally important for society during this crisis, who we might regard as performing active service on an invisible front line. Hidden from public view, these are call centre workers who may be contributing directly to saving lives through 111 or emergency services helplines, or who - when many face-to-face services have become impossible - are helping vulnerable or elderly people who are unable to leave the house and rely totally on remote contact. Telecom contact centres ensure that connectivity is maintained; financial service centres respond to peoples’ money worries; and payment queries and public service centres (e.g. DWP or HMRC) deal with issues of Universal Credit or furlough payment.

Contact centres are an important, but understated or even unacknowledged, area of economic activity in Scotland. I have researched call/contact centres in Scotland for 25 years. In 1997, 16,000 were employed in Scottish call centres -the last full audit published in 2012 established that 90,000 were employed in contact centre activity in Scotland, including those in non-customer facing roles, but who were integral to centres’ operations.

A report I put together for the STUC, several trade unions and health and safety practitioners and campaigners analysed the risks and hazards call centre staff were facing from COVID 19 – call centre staff work in an environment that is unique and in which occupational health risks have long been identified.

COVID 19 is transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces as well as via droplets within 1-2 metre spread but also via airborne transmission - small particles produced by coughing sneezing or even just talking which may stay airborne for hours and be transported long distances, up to tens of metres, in workplaces. SARS-CoV-2 remains active for up to 3 hours in indoor air and 2-3 days on room surfaces in common indoor conditions – facts which have to be considered in the call centre environment.

My report – using questionnaires of workers – aimed to discover where safety was being compromised for workers and to identify best practice, notably in the form of supported homeworking, where workers were removed from workplace hazards.

While anyone who could work from home was told to do so at the beginning of lockdown, I found that very many workers were still obliged to attend their workplaces and, accordingly, faced major hazards.

My report makes clear that very large numbers are extremely anxious, even ‘terrified’, of working in environments they perceive and experience as full of risks. A toxic mix of inadequate or impossible social distancing, much face-to-face contact, inadequacies of sanitisation, the dread of contamination from the workstation and, in particular, hotdesking, combined with what are reported to be deeply problematic heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in sealed buildings, make homeworking a necessity.

One powerful theme, based on substantial evidence, is the inadequacy of social distancing measures and, more dramatically, the impossibility of ensuring social distancing because of structural impediments that are intrinsic to the contact centre’s built environment - layout, configuration, space constraints, occupational density.

Sealed buildings, with their non-opening windows, in which many call centres operate, also pose problems. Heating and air conditioning systems within them (HVACs) represent a serious potential risk as propagators of SARS-CoV-2. A return to work based on such inadequate knowledge and appreciation of the extant hazards could have lethal consequences.

Those who responded to the survey reported fears regarding lack of social distancing, hot desking, cleanliness of public areas and sanitisation of work stations, and the circulation of the virus around the centre due to HVAC systems. Many workers reported illness circulating round the workplace in normal times: with COVID being so contagious, there is no doubt in the workers’ minds that the HVAC system would facilitate transmission of the virus – almost 1 in 2 reported being very worried that the HVAC on their floor would circulate Covid-19.

While some in call centres are performing vital services, many feel their job could have been done from home or online and almost 70% didn’t feel their job was ‘essential’ but were nonetheless made to come into work and put themselves at unnecessary risk.

There was initially lack of clarity from the UK Government guidelines about what constitutes ‘essential’ services. The Scottish Government has emphasised that people should work from home ‘where possible’. I have been a member of the Scottish Government’s Working Group on Contact Centres, contributing to drawing up protocols for safer working, which published guidelines in June 2020.

The UK Government guidelines have perhaps not been specific enough because a number of employers are playing a bit ‘fast and loose’ with this definition of key or essential worker to justify workers coming into work when they should - and could - still be working from home. Covid outbreaks like those recently at the DVLA offices in Swansea remind us of the potential risk of contamination and it’s to this end that I’ve been involved with an organisation called the Call Centre Collective which is supported by the STUC and that has been set up to ensure that workers know their rights about being safe in the workplace.

The Scottish call centre workers, who reported in large numbers in this survey, demonstrated that their working environments are a serious health risk, with exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and the possibility of developing Covid-19 an ever-present possibility. My report presented several recommendations:

· while COVID is still an active threat, the default position for the sector should be homeworking and not the maintenance of existing on-site centres. Quite simply, workers need to be made safe.

· risk assessments must be conducted in each and every call centre workplace, each building in which they are located and within each floor. Trade unions have promoted awareness of important legislation, which gives employees the right to withdraw from, and not to return to, workplaces where they reasonably believe they face ‘serious and imminent danger’ - this provision needs to be emphasised in risk assessments and to be widely publicised by the Scottish Government and appropriate agencies.

· it has been established that call centres are potentially particular hot spots of coronavirus transmission. It is recommended that all contact centre workers in Scotland be tested regularly, positive cases isolated and treated, and then contacts traced and appropriate actions taken.

· if workplace outbreaks do break out, then contact centre closure and test, trace, isolate and treat should be carried out with the proviso of no detriment to workers.

Implementing the recommendations above are essential steps for ensuring protection for call centre workers. As far as Scotland is concerned, I believe the Scottish Government should also undertake an audit of contact centre activity in Scotland to establish which call centres are still requiring their employees to come to work and those employers should provide a justification for why that is so and why they consider their workers to be ‘essential’ because, as far as I can see, in most cases they are not.

I am also undertaking research with Professor Dora Scholarios (University of Strathclyde) and Professor Debra Howcroft on the experience of office workers who have been working from home (WFH). This research is particularly important because unprecedented numbers have been WFH for many months and are likely to be doing so for several more. More significantly, for many there will not be a ‘return to normal’ post-Covid as WFH may become a permanent feature of many workers’ lives. While WFH has taken workers out of potentially hazardous workplaces and several advantages have been reported – e.g saving on commuting time and expenses – several disadvantages have been expressed, including isolation, loss of socialisation, mental ill-health, disrupted work life balance, ergonomic problems because of uncomfortable home work stations. Thus, solid evidence is urgently required of workers’ experiences - positive and negative – to ensure that workers are able to work in safe and supportive environments. To date, more than 3000 completed responses have been received to an online survey which is still open. Please click here to complete.



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