Temporary workers recruited by a festival company to operate emergency morgues in London say they were provided with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and their lunch was transported in the same vehicles that are used to carry dead bodies.
Unions have called for an investigation into the health and safety standards at temporary mortuaries across the capital, which have been set up as overflow facilities for when hospitals and funeral homes reach capacity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Workers, some of whom have refused shifts over the lack of health and safety provisions, have told The Independent they had been given insufficient training and were having to transport dead bodies on DJ risers.
Loud Sound, an events management firm that specialises in music festivals, has been contracted to run the mortuaries and transport deceased people by the London strategic coordination group (SCG), part of the mayor’s office, which is overseeing emergency morgues in the capital.
One man, who usually works as a stagehand, said the company that he had worked with before, which was subcontracted by Loud Sound, had approached him about the work and that it was “very tempting”, given that his work had dried up due to the lockdown.
But when he arrived at the first training session at Breakspear crematorium in Middlesex, he was alarmed at the lack of clear instruction on how bodies should be handled.
“Bodies were being transported in trays on the back of vans, then moved onto DJ risers and transferred into the building to be stored on scaffolding. No one was given any manual handling training about how it was to be done,” he said.
“They had protocols in place, but they were basically being thrown out of the window. The main thing they seemed to be really concerned about was everyone signing the NDA. Everything seemed to be about them not getting press about it rather than any safety of workers.
The man, who refused to take shifts after the training day, added: “We didn’t see a single medical professional or anyone related to dealing with this, all the people we were dealing with were festival people.”
Another worker, who was employed as a body handler at the temporary mortuary in Wanstead Flats, said: “It was run exactly like a festival site, everyone was joking about it. The trolleys we were using were basically DJ risers for festivals. The wheels kept coming off.
“At one point a wheel fell off, which could have tipped the tray if there had been a tray on it at which point a body bag from that height would probably just have exploded. They weren’t secure at all. A hard brake and they would have all slammed around.
“They told us an experienced person would be helping with the body handling. It turned out it was an admin person who’d been on site a few days longer than we had.”
The worker said vans transporting the bodies were also being used to transport food provision for employees, adding: “The first day everyone complained about that and they used pick-up trucks to get lunch instead. We thought it was settled but next meal it was back to vans.
“We were the ones disinfecting the vans and if you tried to put more than a bit of mist in they would say ‘don’t waste it’ or ‘don’t use too much because it needs to dry out’.”
Several workers told The Independent they also received inconsistent instructions on how many bodies could be stored in a van at one time. After initially being told that a maximum of two bodies could be transported simultaneously, management are alleged to have said “five to seven” bodies could be carried in the vans.
Workers also complained of poor-quality PPE and unclear instructions on whether gloves, aprons, masks and goggles should be reused. They alleged that site management did not attempt to enforce boundaries between clean and dirty areas of the site, risking cross-contamination.
One worker said: “Surely you wear [PPE] in the dirty area, bin them and then the clean area stays clean. We saw people holding their PPE in their mouths walking into a clean area. But there’s nobody telling them not to do this. There was no accountability for any of the processes.”
The worker, who left the job because of the poor working conditions and is now unemployed, said: “It’s basically the people who are down and out and have got no other option but to do this ... It’s like get the people who need it, stick them in there and they basically have to say yes.
“You have all these companies who have a plethora of people on hand and ready to do this work. If you think £12.50-an-hour, five days a week, you’re talking about a few grand for six weeks or two months’ work. At a time when we’re not spending much money, that would cover me for a long time.
“I didn’t particularly want to do this work, as much as I understand it’s a necessity. If someone asked me if I wanted to do it in a normal situation, I’d say not particularly. But I will because I need the money and it needs to be done, but I’m not going to be taken for granted and do it in a way that’s not safe and not proper.”
Philippa Childs, head of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu), told The Independent they had heard from a number of members who had been drafted in to work at emergency morgues and were concerned about conditions there, and was urging them not to take up such employment.
She said: “Reports that our live events members are working in temporary morgues because of the health and economic crisis created by coronavirus are extremely distressing. We have urged members to reconsider undertaking this work after hearing about the conditions they are operating in.
“Our main concerns are that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus without adequate personal protective equipment. The fact that they are still working in these circumstances shows how desperately they need income protection and is an example of the difficult choices those who are falling through the gaps of the government finance schemes are dealing with.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the reports were “very concerning” and should be “thoroughly investigated” by the London SCG.
“Any breaches of health and safety rules must be reported to the Health and Safety Executive for investigation. Firms that commit serious breaches of health and safety rules should be prosecuted. We cannot have workers lives put at risk,” she added.
“Temporary workers are particularly at risk from irresponsible employers. If you can be sacked on the spot without reason, you don’t have the job security needed to challenge any wrongdoing. We need stronger rights and enforcement and rights to protect them.”
A spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive said: “We understand this is a challenging time for the sector but we take any concerns about workers’ health and safety very seriously.”
A spokesperson for the London SCG said: “All staff employed to work at the sites receive appropriate training and support for their specific roles. All staff are given the necessary PPE and extensive welfare support.
“All those who expressed an interest in the work were fully briefed and given the opportunity to withdraw or continue. Most chose to continue. We are not aware of the claim that any vehicle carrying the deceased exceeded the maximum number of bodies permitted.
“The movement of the deceased is in line with funeral industry standards and best practice, and has been agreed with experts who have experience in the movement of the deceased and the risks posed in the handling of those who have tragically died from Covid-19.”
The Independent has approached Loud Sound for comment.
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