Many Royal Mail sorting offices are not providing workers with sufficient protection from coronavirus infection, according to a trade union, which argues that some depots should close until staff are safe.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents thousands of postal workers, told members they should stay away if their local sorting office had not provided equipment such as masks, gloves and hand sanitiser, or implemented government guidelines of two-metre social distancing at all times. It estimates that at as many as half of sorting offices did not have sufficient protection in place.
Dave Ward, CWU general secretary, said: “The conditions thousands of our members are being expected to work in are not safe. Provision of PPE [personal protective equipment] across the UK is sporadic and Royal Mail have admitted they have no data on what equipment is available in each office.
“Our members are fantastic public servants. They want to keep the UK connected and are willing to step up their role by checking on the elderly, delivering government services and assisting with food deliveries. They deserve better than to be told washing their hands is the ‘gold standard’ of safety.”
Royal Mail has disputed the union’s claims, saying it had provided hand soap for workers to clean their hands and that latex gloves were available for those who wanted them. It said that “wherever possible” workers were being kept least two metres apart in depots.
A spokesman said: “Royal Mail takes the health and safety of our colleagues very seriously. Throughout this crisis, every decision we make puts the health of our people and our customers first. In assessing the risks to our people and making the necessary operational changes to protect them, we take professional medical and health and safety advice on a daily basis.”
Royal Mail added that under new measures to protect postal workers on the doorstep, customers were not being passed handheld devices to sign for parcels, instead logging their name from a safe distance. From last week the company said only one person at a time was allowed in a delivery vehicle and junk mail was now only delivered alongside addressed mail.
The spokesman said: “Royal Mail continues to engage with the CWU on a daily basis on this matter. We are pleased that at a local level and through national officers we have been working well together to find practical solutions to the many issues that have emerged. We have a joint interest in protecting our people and we hope that that focus can continue through the operational discussions taking place between our teams.”
However, more than a dozen Royal Mail workers have contacted the Guardian to say they were unhappy about the conditions in their local sorting office.
One said that there was not enough hand sanitiser available for post delivery staff to take on their rounds so that they feared taking a drink en route in case they got infected. “We have staff working shoulder to shoulder. There is one bottle of sanitising gel to be shared by the whole office,” he said.
Another said workers were “cramped like sardines” and that many colleagues were off sick.
The CWU said it had asked Royal Mail to improve social distancing by cutting the number of staff working each shift and cutting the number of deliveries to three a week, with parcels, packets and first class mail delivered on alternate days.
It wants Royal Mail to prioritise the delivery of government communications, testing kits and other services and to halt the delivery of advertising flyers.
Ward said post delivery workers “deserve better than to be delivering advertising mail at a time of high risk for them and the customers they serve”.
The complaints of postal workers echo those of employees in some online retail warehouses, including Asos’s facility in Barnsley, where workers have said they are not happy with the protection on offer.