Fórsa has referred the issue of the occupational health process for classroom-based staff to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) as a dispute under the terms of the Public Services Stability Agreement (PSSA).
The union remains concerned that standard occupational health advice, and new guidance issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) on Monday, give insufficient protections against Covid-19 to classroom-based staff with underlying health problems, including lung and respiratory conditions, heart disease, and some cancers.
The union estimates that approximately 200 to 400 staff may be affected by serious underlying health conditions.
Fórsa, which represents 15,000 staff in the education sector, referred the issue today following correspondence from the Education Minister Norma Foley which said that classroom-based staff with underlying health problems, categorised as ‘high risk’, can now seek a second opinion if they are unhappy with the outcome of their occupational health assessment.
The union’s head of education, Andy Pike, said he was disappointed the Department of Education continues to misrepresent HSE advice on ‘high risk’ individuals:
“Unfortunately the provision of a second opinion will not change the outcome of the assessment process if the instructions remain the same and are restricted solely to determining if an employee is at ‘very high risk’ or ‘high risk’ should they contract Covid-19.”
On Monday, 24th August, Fórsa sought an urgent engagement with the Department of Education over concerns that special needs assistants (SNAs) and school secretaries with underlying health conditions could be at unnecessarily high risk once schools start to reopen later this week.
Mr Pike said the union continues to be contacted by members with real and genuine concerns that strict adherence to the risk categories, without full clinical assessments, will have detrimental consequences for their health.
Among the individual examples of health conditions provided to the minister were immunosuppressed conditions, end-stage renal failure, Type-1 diabetes and neutropenia, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), different types of cancers, hypertension, and severe asthma. In all of the individual examples given, these were assessed to be ‘high risk’, yet fit to attend work.
Those in the ‘high risk’ category are advised to avoid going into work if possible and are told that if they have to attend work they should maintain two metres social distance and practice good hand hygiene.
However, Fórsa has said this advice is insufficient and inappropriate for classroom staff who are most at risk. The union has asked the minister to reconsider the policy to “afford a genuine clinical assessment to staff that takes account of their health status in accordance with published HSE advice.”
Mr Pike said:
“We will now seek the assistance of the WRC in securing a fair occupational health process that allows staff with serious underlying health conditions access to a full clinical assessment of their health status.
“This problem can easily be resolved if the Department of Education (DES) accepts that staff with multiple underlying conditions in the ‘high risk’ category should have their health status assessed fairly and objectively according to the published advice,” he said.
Mr Pike said this would only be achieved if the DES changes the instructions given to Medmark, the occupational healthcare firm which oversees the assessment process.
SOURCE: Materials provided by Forsa.
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