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Coronavirus Kent: Biffa confirms difficulties in refuse workers carrying out social distancing

Refuse collectors may be at greater risk of contracting coronavirus because crews cannot always follow government guidance on social distancing.

Biffa – which is contracted to collect trash from homes on Sheppey and in Sittingbourne and Faversham – admitted it is "difficult" for crews to be separated with a distance of at least two metres.

Biffa has said it is hard to ensure staff can always keep the appropriate distance
Biffa has said it is hard to ensure staff can always keep the appropriate distance

Three employees have to travel close together in a lorry from a depot to where the route begins.

A Biffa spokesman said: "Like key workers in other critical services, social distancing guidelines can be difficult to always be met especially with our collection crews.

"To help with this, our teams are briefed to follow our strict hand and hygiene protocols, wear the appropriate personal protective equipment such as gloves and self-isolate if they develop coronavirus symptoms.

"By following this regime we are minimising the risk of spreading the virus within the bounds of what is practical with the essential service Biffa is providing to the UK."

The firm collects waste on behalf of Swale council
The firm collects waste on behalf of Swale council

He added the health and safety of employees and those in the community is a "top priority".

"We are making every effort to apply social distancing measures where possible in our workplaces," he said.

The contractor works on behalf of Swale council to collect recyclable, household and garden waste from properties.

Unite regional officer Phil Silkstone, who represents some of the employees in the area, said: “Unite has contacted Biffa operations across the South East, including those at Swale, to ensure that social distancing where it has not already been put in to place.

"This, along with safety procedures, are implemented and adhered to and proper personal protective equipment is provided, so the risks to refuse workers are minimised.

Cllr Cameron Beart (Con) for Queenborough and Halfway. Picture: Swale council
Cllr Cameron Beart (Con) for Queenborough and Halfway. Picture: Swale council

"Biffa must ensure that the safety of their staff, who are performing a vital role in extreme circumstances, is a priority during these challenging times."

A spokeswoman for the authority admitted the firm was unable to strictly follow the advice at all times.

"Due to the nature of the work, it is not always possible for team members to practise social distancing at all times.

"We will continue to support all our contractors as they deliver essential services while the country battles the coronavirus.

"All team members are given personal protective equipment, hand and hygiene protocols and directions to self-isolate if they develop coronavirus symptoms."

"This provides them no opportunity to distance themselves from one another."

She added that they are working to make sure there is as little disruption to bin collections as possible.

Concerns were initially raised with Cllr Cameron Beart (Con), member for Queenborough and Halfway.

He said: "When travelling between the depot, their route and the tip several times a day, the three operatives are in the cab together.

"This provides them no opportunity to distance themselves from one another and as they are key workers, they have carried on as normal.

"There is a large number of the Biffa workforce in Swale currently self-isolating so it clearly is a genuine concern and serious issue that has been raised and we have to consider the health and wellbeing of those staff.

"Biffa needs to provide appropriate personal protective equipment for their employees and also for use on surfaces in the lorries which should be regularly cleaned.

"The only other alternative I can think of is if Biffa was to provide a support vehicle so an operative could follow the dustcart in a separate vehicle, ensuring distancing but keeping them working."

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