Fast food workers’ health, safety and welfare in drive-thru’s

The IER manifesto makes an important contribution in emphasising the importance of collective bargaining. In the Hazards Campaign we know that where workers are working in low-paid, vulnerable employment then they are more at risk of injury, illness and ultimately dying as a result of their work.

Commentary icon15 Feb 2018|Comment

The IER manifesto makes an important contribution in emphasising the importance of collective bargaining. In the Hazards Campaign we know that where workers are working in low-paid, vulnerable employment then they are more at risk of injury, illness and ultimately dying as a result of their work.

Fast food restaurants are nothing new in the UK. They have been in existence for decades, mainly family owned businesses selling food like fish and chips. The concept of drive-thru’s is a reasonably new development in the UK, having come from the US where they have had them since the 1940’s.

Although the health, safety and welfare concerns of this form of work have been known for decades based on the US experience, in the UK fast food companies have been more concerned with the comfort of and timely service for customers and profits rather than the welfare of their workers.

Today, the fast food industry in the UK includes many of the biggest global companies in the world. McDonalds is worth £billions and employs 1.8 million people worldwide. In the UK, it employs 91,500 people across 1,200 restaurants. It is one of the biggest providers of first-time jobs, and many of their workers are under 21.

As a result of the BFAWU organising McDonalds workers in a hugely successful strike last year, we have produced a joint leaflet concerning the health, safety and welfare of fast food drive-thru workers, all of which are being compromised by the often negligent behaviour of employers.

Many drive-thru workers talk about the freezing cold conditions they work in. They cite the sometimes choking exhaust fumes they breath in, the claustrophobic and cramped spaces they work in, and the harassment and violence they experience. An example was given of a heater breaking down over the Christmas period and the employer refusing to replace it, leaving staff in unacceptably cold conditions. Workers report not knowing how to, or being discouraged from, completing accident books; using ladders and steps on wet and greasy floors; or ladders that are broken.

What makes these workers especially vulnerable is that they are often younger workers in their first job, lacking the confidence and knowledge to raise issues, and on zero-hours contracts which mean they may not get any more work if they raise their issues of concern with management.

The fast food drive-thru campaign by the Hazards Campaign and the BFAWU is aimed at trying to support those workers in collectively enforcing their rights. The employers have a general duty under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) to ensure the health, safety and welfare of workers, and under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 have to make suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks in their workplace and to put in place control measures which in the first instance should be about eliminating the risk, then if the risk cannot be eliminated how they will manage the risk down to a level to avoid harm. Personal protective equipment is the last thing to be used to control a risk. This approach to all the risks in the workplace is a methodical and logical way of keeping workers safe and applies to all risks whether they are to a worker’s physical or mental health. They are a collective approach and not an individual one. Work should be changed to be safe for the workers and not workers being forced to fit the work. Best practice is one that enables all workers to be safe and well and in conditions above the legal minimum standard. We should expect the best health and safety from the world’s biggest corporations.

TUC research has shown that where workers are in trade unions, they are at least 50% safer and that is partly because of the specific role carried out by Health and Safety Reps. Health and Safety Reps have rights under the Safety Reps and Safety Committees regulations 1977 to carry out inspections four times a year; to discuss health, safety and welfare issues with all workers; to raise concerns and hazards with management; to contribute to risk assessments; to investigate any incidents; to attend safety committee meetings with management; and when LA Environmental Health Officers visit their workplaces, to be able to talk to them. These rights, which are carried out in work time, enable them to hold management to account in complying with their legal duties under health and safety law.

However, fast food workers are unlikely to belong to a trade union. They are low paid, on precarious contracts and vulnerable to victimisation and harassment by management. Our elected political representatives are in a unique position to be able to oversee those workplaces where these workers are employed and to be able to influence management to keep workers safer and healthier. This is, and should be, a role for our LA Environmental Health (enforcement) Officers. However, with cuts to their numbers and resources, and the changes made to their priorities, many workers are being abandoned to the fate of ‘profits before safety’.

As Hazards Magazine said: ‘workers should not be treated as disposable and work should not be a spirit-sapping, body-breaking grind’.

The theme for International Workers’ Memorial Day this year is ‘Union workplaces are safer workplaces’. Trade Unions’ role in collective bargaining assists all issues related to improving workers’ pay, terms and conditions, and must include health and safety. We all have a responsibility in defending workers’ terms and conditions and organising to improve them. I would urge all of us to support the important action that is called for in the document.

Read Hazards’ Fast Food Workers’ Safety Leaflet

Janet Newsham

Janet Newsham Janet Newsham Janet works for Greater Manchester Hazards Centre as the coordinator and Chair of the Hazards Campaign.