A TfL worker deep cleans a Victoria Line tube train at the London Underground. Photo: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Images via Getty Images
The government has dangerously downplayed the risk of catching coronavirus at work, in order to continue with “business as usual” experts have found.
A report from the Institute of Employment Rights has slammed the government’s “light touch” approach to workplace safety during the coronavirus pandemic, and says that COVID-19 transmission in the office is still a serious risk.
The authors of the report are calling for a major public enquiry into health and safety at work in the UK.
“Our jobs are among the most necessary features of our lives, but they are not worth our lives, nor are they worth the lives of colleagues, family and friends,” says Phil James, professor of Employment Relations at Middlesex University and editor of the report.
The Institute of Employment Rights report comes just weeks after a DVLA worker in Swansea died following an outbreak at the government agency’s offices. Cases shot from 11 at the start of the first lockdown to over 500 in September, when bosses insisted staff return to work. Union leaders are calling for an inquiry into the death.
VICE World News has previously reported on low-paid workers such as cleaning staff and workers in fast food restaurants having little choice but to attend workplaces they believe are unsafe. Evidence has emerged that occupational factors may be behind the disproportionate vulnerability of BAME groups to death from COVID.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – the government body in charge of enforcing workplace safety – has come under scrutiny during the pandemic. As stricter rules have been announced governing the behaviour of individuals, with over 40,000 on the spot COVID fines issued nationally, not a single employer has been prosecuted for endangering workers.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has been keen to get people to attend their places of work, but has been forced to recommend that people work from home when faced with overwhelming evidence of increased transmission of COVID-19.
In May 2020, as he eased the restrictions of the UK’s first national lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that HSE spot-checks were making workplaces “COVID-19 secure”, ensuring that “businesses are keeping employees safe”.
But at the start of the pandemic, HSE had “virtually abrogated its regulatory responsibility for Covid-19 safety”. The spot-checks that Boris Johnson mentioned were few, as inspectors were themselves locked down. On the 27th March, HSE announced it was suspending all inspections of building sites because it could not guarantee the safety of its inspectors. According to Hazards Magazine – an independent occupational safety magazine – HSE did not conduct a single visit to a care home between March and June. By the end of September, it had conducted eight visits.
In August 2020, the government ended its “work from home” advice and gave employers “more discretion” to decide whether it was safe for their employers to be at workplaces, despite mounting evidence of the risk of transmission. Predictably, in September 2020, following further outbreaks, the government performed a screeching U-turn, and once again recommended working from home where possible.
Throughout this time, HSE kept a low profile, leading to “suggestions that it had gone AWOL”, the Institute of Employment Rights report says. If anything, its actions “could be interpreted as actually downplaying the role of work in facilitating the spread of COVID-19.” Among its actions were indicating that COVID cases among workers did not have to be reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR), if their jobs did not involve dealing with infected people. The body also controversially approved the distribution of out-dated supplies of PPE to healthcare workers and patients.
This has raised “serious concerns regarding the willingness and capacity of the HSE to act as a credible regulator”, say the report’s authors.
Government guidance for employers on making workplaces COVID-secure, written in conjunction with HSE, have no legal standing, in contrast to the emergency laws to restrict movement and the gathering of people. The guidance documents also understate the legal obligations of employers to keep workers safe, and have “an almost complete absence of any mention of employee rights to representation and consultation.”
The lack of reference to clearly relevant health and safety law in the UK guidance “might be argued to reflect pressures from a UK government that is instinctively opposed to the imposition of regulatory burdens on business,” the authors say. Parallel guidance from the Scottish government has a stronger emphasis on the legal obligations of employers and HSE’s role in enforcing them.
Years of austerity meant that HSE was dealing with a severe lack of resources as the pandemic began. From 2009 to 2020, HSE funding fell 58 percent in real terms, and the number of inspectors declined by 35 percent.
In May, Johnson pledged £14 million of additional funding to support the HSE for this task. However, this was a fraction of the almost £1 billion loss to its budget in the past decade. In any case, the extra money could not be used by HSE to hire additional inspectors, so more than half the money was siphoned off to private companies who employed untrained workers to carry out ineffectual checks by making scripted 15-minute phone-calls to employers. In the six months from April to September 2020, 15,522 phone calls were made, supplemented with 4,938 spot check visits – which led to just 78 enforcement notices and no prosecutions.
While itself unable to adequately enforce health and safety law, HSE did not make use of the estimated 100,000 trade union health and safety representatives in the UK, which the report calls, “a deliberate political act, in keeping with the control of the HSE by the neo-liberal orthodoxies of the present government.”
The Institute of Employment Rights report concludes that “HSE has become a hollowed-out shell, a shadow of what a safety regulatory body needs to be. And paradoxically, its uselessness to workers and the public is what makes it so useful to a government that wants to be seen to be doing something about the pandemic, whilst carrying on ‘business as usual’.”
Responding to the report, Andy McDonald, Shadow Secretary for Employment Rights and Protections, said: “In a time of national crisis it’s more important than ever that the government’s actions are held up to scrutiny. The findings of this report are deeply concerning – if health and safety laws and COVID-19 rules are not enforced, they are not worth the paper they are written on.
“When a deadly disease sweeps the country we need worker protections more than ever, yet the government has effectively shielded employers from prosecution even while coming down hard on individual citizens who break the same rules. We have seen the tragic results of under-regulated workplaces in outbreaks across the country, including at the DVLA offices in Swansea. The workers affected – and those in our emergency services and NHS who fought to save their lives – deserve answers as to how this was allowed to happen.”
Alex Marshall, President of the Independent Workers of Great Britain trade union, which took the government to court to ensure gig workers are covered by EU health and safety legislation, said: “The report highlights what the union has been fighting for throughout this pandemic. There has been a severe lack of enforcement from the HSE and a lack of health and safety protections for many of our workers. We launched a landmark judicial review against the government and won. Despite this major victory in the High Court we are seeing big corporations still trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities.
“The lack of enforcement has left it to the unions and the workers to organise and force companies to implement the law. We agree with the findings of the report that we need a major inquiry that leads to a more effective regulatory system which puts the health and safety of workers and the general public first. Workers’ rights are a matter of public health, as this pandemic has made devastatingly clear.”
A HSE spokesperson said: “We have been made aware of the report and will examine its findings.”