Find out how reps like Michael and Olga are helping members from BAME backgrounds get the right protection and support during the COVID-19 pandemic
With clear evidence that COVID-19 is having a specific and serious impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, employers should be putting measures in place to mitigate the risks and make sure nursing staff from BAME backgrounds are protected.
RCN safety rep Michael Hayworth says that risk assessments are a crucial part of this. “As this issue became apparent, our trust quickly set up a task and finish group to review and update our risk assessments,” says Michael, who is also an RCN steward and staff side chair at his trust.
“We don’t yet know the exact causes behind the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on people from BAME backgrounds. But we can identify what might be an additional risk to nursing staff, such as caring for high-risk COVID-19 patients or aerosol generating procedures.”
Michael says the group, which also includes leads from the trust’s HR, health and safety and occupational health teams, was set up following guidance issued by NHS England outlining the expectation that NHS employers must now consider BAME staff as being at greater risk along with other vulnerable groups, such as people with pre-existing health conditions.
“The updated risk assessment template has now been rolled out across the organisation,” says Michael. “And the trust has written to all staff from BAME backgrounds asking them to contact occupational health or speak to their line manager if they haven’t already been risk assessed as part of another vulnerable group.”
Michael explains that it’s hard to know what the outcome will be: “It may result in some staff being redeployed to lower risk areas but it’s difficult to say because this isn’t a one size fits all situation. The important thing is that all nursing staff in vulnerable groups are properly risk assessed on an individual basis.”
The important thing is that all nursing staff in vulnerable groups are properly risk assessed on an individual basis
Listening to members
RCN steward Olga Leach-Walters says a similar approach to risk assessments has been taken in her trust, where more than a quarter of staff are from BAME backgrounds.
“Our chief nurse is leading an inclusion steering group that’s been set up to plan how the trust can best support BAME staff during the pandemic,” explains Olga. “The group has been meeting regularly and includes the Chief Nurse, the trust’s inclusion lead, union reps and other relevant BAME leads from across the trust.
“We’re currently reviewing our risk assessments and will be rolling these out to all vulnerable groups including BAME staff as a priority. We’re also looking at how we can actively support staff who may understandably be concerned.”
There is a lot of fear, so we need to listen to staff and reassure them
Olga says: “In my role as rep and acting staff side chair, I’ve received a lot of emails from members who are concerned about working in areas where they’re not comfortable, or who are worried about going home to their families and putting them at risk, especially those with children and vulnerable family members. There is a lot of fear, so we need to listen to staff and reassure them.
“For example, reps recently raised members’ worries about access to personal protective equipment (PPE) in the steering group and as a result the person in charge of PPE for the trust came to speak to us to give us more information. Fortunately, we have enough PPE and it’s been really important to communicate that message to staff, so they know a lack of PPE shouldn’t be a problem they face.”
Olga says that listening to members’ concerns is central to the steering group’s work. “I’m gathering a lot of information from members from BAME backgrounds to find out what they think will help support them,” says Olga. “And we also want to give staff the opportunity to ask questions and find out more about the issue and what the trust is doing.
“Of course, that is really difficult at the moment because we can’t hold face to face meetings or events. Instead, we’ve set up a series of webinars through our BAME staff network. These will give BAME staff and allies the opportunity to find out more, ask questions and give feedback.”
Olga, who will be chairing the virtual meeting in her role as BAME staff network chair, thinks having the opportunity to hear directly from the chief nurse and others leading on the work will help reassure staff. “Finding a way to keep our BAME staff network going during the pandemic was a priority too because we know it’s a source of support to people,” says Olga.
“As a rep, I’m also able to signpost members to valuable information and resources about COVID-19 from the RCN. I make sure to raise awareness about the support available through the RCN too.”
Partnership working will be essential to ensure the safety of nursing staff remains a priority
Safety must remain a priority
Michael says that the safety of staff from BAME backgrounds and other vulnerable groups must remain high on the agenda as the NHS starts to reopen services that were scaled back or postponed due to the pandemic.
“In my trust, staff side reps are already working with our employer to see how we can put in place measures, such as social distancing, in some services,” says Michael. “It’s still unclear how we’re going to implement this thoroughly in the workplace, not just for patients but also for staff. However, what we do know is that there will be a huge amount of pressure to bring staff back.
“Despite that pressure, we must continue to recognise the risks and how different groups may be affected. Partnership working will be essential to ensure the safety of nursing staff remains a priority.”
RCN Equalities Lead Wendy Irwin says: “Our reps are a precious resource for members, and their value has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it is through keeping nurses safe, advocacy on their behalf or signposting to additional sources of support; implementing equality and promoting inclusion lies at the heart of the role.
“If you’re a rep and would like some advice on supporting staff from BAME backgrounds during the pandemic, please contact your local RCN officer. You can also use the discussion zone in our online COVID-19 resource for reps to find out what others are doing in their workplace.”
What should employers be doing?
The RCN has set out how it expects health and care employers to comply with their duty of care to their workers. This includes carrying out comprehensive and continuous equality analysis and impact assessments, and updating their risk assessment processes to include ethnicity in their vulnerable and at-risk group. To find out more, read the RCN’s position on employer responsibilities for BAME staff.
If members believe their health and safety is being compromised or placed at risk, they should contact their local RCN rep or RCN Direct. Members can also contact RCN Member Support Services to access counselling support.