Coronavirus: Cleaners and bin collectors 'don't feel safe'

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland local government correspondent

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image captionCouncils are continuing to collect rubbish, but many have made changes to normal arrangements

Many refuse collectors and street cleaners say they do not feel safe at work, according to a major union.

GMB Scotland said workers are worried they cannot keep a safe distance from their colleagues and members of the public.

Councils are continuing to collect rubbish and clean streets, though many have changed normal arrangements because of the coronavirus crisis.

GMB Scotland ran an online survey over seven days.

Almost 70% of local government refuse and cleansing staff who took part said they did not feel safe at work.

Of those, 73% said this was because they could not consistently practise safe social distancing measures.

The union said the workforce also reported they were being approached by members of the public more frequently than usual to inquire about collection, undermining some of their efforts to practise social distancing.

'Selfless' workers

GMB Scotland organiser Rhea Wolfson said there was no excuse or need for workers to be "packed into cabs and depots" by employers.

"We are also making a plea to the public to protect and respect these key workers by practising the proper social distancing recommendations while they are going about their important work - ask your council about collection queries, not the front-line staff," Ms Wolfson said.

"The survey shows that we cannot be complacent about safety in refuse and that our members, like every other set of key workers, are selflessly working through this exceptional public health crisis to contribute towards the greater good, so we need consistency from councils and consideration from the public."

The GMB said it had a simple message to "help keep these heroes safe at work".

Scotland's largest council - Glasgow - said it was urging the public to play their part in keeping bin workers safe.

A spokesman said: "We fully recognise the vital role being undertaken by our cleansing staff and we are doing everything we can to ensure their safety as they go about their work

"We are following the latest waste industry safety guidance and we are in daily contact with the trade unions on how to best protect staff health and well-being."

The spokesman added that council staff had been working hard in "challenging circumstances" and urged members of the public to observe the two-metre social distance rule with all crews.

Staggered breaks

Most Scottish councils have made significant changes to bin collections and street cleaning because of the crisis.

Some have changed the times and dates of collections or temporarily stopped collecting different forms of waste separately.

Two factors led to this: some staff may be socially isolating, in high-risk groups or unwell, while changes to practices have been made to try to comply with social distancing rules.

UK-wide guidance issued by the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum suggests local authorities should consider:

  • Reduced collections
  • Staggered rest breaks to prevent workers from congregating in their depots
  • And alternative means of transport for workers to limit the risk of infection when working in cabs.

The guidance also states that where a member of the public does not "stand away from their bin" at the required two metres distance, that waste should not be collected.