Ask the panel

January 27, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

My department is to move into offices where there is a mobile phone mast on the roof. Many colleagues are unhappy about this, but our department head says that there is no research to prove that such masts have an adverse effect on health and that the current occupants have been there several years with no complaints. What are our rights if we (a) refuse to move, (b) are forced to move and refuse to work in the building or (c) move and believe we are suffering health problems as a result?

* This is clearly a subject close to the heart of our Natfhe panellist. "Given that brain tumours and leukaemia, particularly in children, have been linked to electromagnetic radiation, the employer should ensure that an adequate risk assessment has been made. This should include measurements of radiation levels and patterns.

"It's possible that the building may have some degree of protection built in, but an investigation should be able to find out if this is the case."

He recommends getting more information from the US Federal Communications Commission. The following URL will take you to a particularly useful paper: http:///www. fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety/ cellpcs.html.

On the question of complaints, he says: "It may well be that nobody has complained out of a fear of the possible consequences. As to legal rights to refuse to work there - that's difficult."

Workers only have the legal right to withdraw their labour where there is a serious, imminent and unavoidable danger, according to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, Regulation 8(2).

The Employment Rights Act 1996 gives staff the right to be protected from detriment (S44) or dismissal (S100) where they remove themselves from a situation they reasonably believe to present a serious and imminent danger.

"More generally, the employer has a duty to provide a workplace that is safe and without risks to health (qualified by 'reasonably practicable'), and to protect workers from hazards.

"So in theory, workers who walk out have a perfect right to do so if their health or safety is threatened and an employer is not doing its duty. In practice, this could prove difficult and needs careful handling."

He concludes that your best course of action is to ensure that a risk assessment is done. "If this shows patterns of radiation penetration into the building, some additional control and precautionary measures should be taken," he says.

* The Association of University Teachers panellist says: "Your employer is legally obliged to provide you with a safe working environment, and you would be entitled to refuse to work in the building if you could show there was a serious and imminent danger. However, it would be difficult, with the available evidence, to show that such a situation existed. Refusal to move could result in disciplinary action. It is therefore important that you seek the involvement of your trade union at the earliest time.

"Of course, if you or your colleagues develop any health problems, these should be reported immediately to management and to your trade union so investigative and preventive action can be taken."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "There is a duty on an employer to provide a safe working environment. This is usually achieved by carrying out a risk assessment and taking measures to avoid any hazards.

"Although there have not been any complaints from existing occupants, the university may wish to involve the health and safety adviser to ease the anxiety of staff. The adviser will explain what measures have been taken and, if need be, carry out an assessment to decide whether additional action is necessary.

"Such steps would be considered reasonable in the circumstances, and there would be no justification for newly arrived staff to refuse to move or to work."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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