UPDATE 2-Italy seeks to head off strikes as unions push on coronavirus

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MILAN, March 24 (Reuters) - The Italian government met unions on Tuesday to try to head off the threat of strikes called by labour organisations demanding a wider shutdown of the economy and better safety measures for staff forced to work during the coronavirus crisis.

Workers in the engineering, chemical, textile, paper, cardboard and printing industries have announced strikes in Lombardy, the region worst hit by the pandemic, which has killed more than 6,800 people in Italy in just over a month.

Petrol station operators also said they would start to close down, with pumps on motorways shutting from Wednesday evening, because it had become impossible to guarantee health and safety standards and keep businesses going.

On Sunday, the government ordered non-essential businesses to close until at least April 3 but said others, in strategic sectors ranging from banks to food, chemicals and engineering, should keep working.

But CGIL, CISL and UIL, Italy’s biggest unions, said the government had not taken full account of their concerns and that many non-essential activities had been included.

“People’s health and security has priority over any other requirement,” they said.

The heads of the unions were due to meet Industry Minister Stefano Patuanelli and Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri by videoconference on Tuesday night to seek agreement.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the government was working on solutions that would allow vital sectors of the economy to keep operating while still maintaining safety.

“I hope there will be no strikes; at this moment, the country cannot afford it,” he told an online news conference.

Fears that banks could also face strikes, a week before many pensioners go to pick up monthly pensions, were averted by an accord to boost protection for staff in the branches still open.

UniCredit, Italy’s biggest bank, said it would leave less than a third of its branches open and further cut opening hours while boosting protection for staff with plexiglass separation screens as well as protective masks and gloves.

One of the companies that have kept operations running, the aerospace and defence group Leonardo, whose products include parts for air ambulances, said that more than 70% of staff due to work on Monday had showed up. (Reporting by Valentina Za, Giulia Segreti, Angelo Amante; editing by James Mackenzie and Barbara Lewis)