Big Issue North 31 May - 6 June
Watchdog slammed over Covid
Unions say employers under-report deaths
The Health and Safety Executive has been accused by campaigners and unions of failing to protect workers during the pandemic.
Activists say the government body has allowed employers to under-report occupational exposure to the virus and failed to ensure personal protective equipment and ventilation standards have been rigorous enough.
Employers should report cases to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) if a worker has been diagnosed with Covid-19 and there is reasonable evidence it was caused by occupational exposure.
In the 13 months to May 2021 there were 32,500 Covid-19 cases reported by employers and 388 deaths. These are small figures compared with the 4.4 million people nationally who have contracted Covid-19 and the 15,263 registered working-age deaths.
Sixty per cent of reports were in the health and social work sector, including hospitals, residential homes and day centres, with 7 per cent in education and 5 per cent in manufacturing.
Janet Newsham, co-ordinator of the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre, which advises workers on safety, said: “They are an underestimate of those who have contracted Covid and died as a result. If there is a public inquiry into the pandemic it should include looking to find the truth about workplace infections and deaths.”
James Martin, a trade union tutor at Warrington and Vale College, said union reps have reported cases to him where workers have been told to wear a mask rather than a visor. This has led to people wearing glasses being unable to work safely due to them steaming up.
Martin has also heard of employers unwilling to conduct mandatory Covid-19 safety inspections.
The Employment Act says employees have the right to leave work if they are facing serious or imminent danger.
Martin said the union Unite had backed staff who feared super-spreader events at employers, threatening industrial action, and this had resulted in improved safety measures.
“But that is not an approach that can be taken by less well-organised workplaces,” he said. “The HSE should be helping such workers but it is an unreliable source of advice and support. It fails to inspect many workplaces and allows employers to self-regulate themselves.”
HSE says it has undertaken investigations into 216 of the reported 388 deaths and made over 219,500 Covid19 workplace spot checks, Watchdog slammed over Covid Unions say employers under-report deaths of which 92,000 were site visits. Daily workplace checks average over 2,000, up from 700 in November 2020.
HSE says spot checks have been targeted at industries where workers are most vulnerable to transmission risks and 90 per cent of employers checked either have the right precautions or will make changes without the need for enforcement notices.
But Newsham said: “Covid spot checks are mainly phone calls. The HSE got £14 million extra public funds but have not employed fully trained inspectors and have relied on untrained staff using body cameras on workplace visits.”
She added that inspectors have generally failed to contact union officials, who are “independent voices that are critical to ensuring employers carry out their safety responsibilities”.
She said: “Trade unionorganised workplaces are safer. By taking our advice on the transmission risk, which early on we knew was mainly airborne, union reps have pushed employers into improving workplace ventilation.”
Employers found guilty of breaking health and safety laws can be fined, jailed or lose the right to be a company director. HSE has not prosecuted any employers for breaking laws over Covid-19.
A HSE spokesperson claimed that the best use of its time is “through persuasion, advice and reprimand, not slower legal proceedings”.
The spokesperson added: “To meet the demand for PPE in healthcare, legal requirements have been temporarily eased, including conformity assessment procedures and CE/UKCA marking. To ensure these products are safe their supply must be agreed by HSE as the market surveillance authority for workplace PPE.”