It quickly became clear why. Initially, HSE inspectors were being shielded from visiting Johnson’s “Covid-secure” workplaces in case they were not, in fact, Covid-secure. What’s more, the regulator was explicitly told not to use any of its funds to train new inspectors, so having dropped nearly a third of its inspectors (28%) over the last ten years the HSE was forced to outsource inspection to private companies. These firms used public money to set up call-centres that made 15-minute phonecalls to employers to ask if they were following the rules. To the surprise of no one, the employers said they were. Workers, though, disagree – those surveyed by the TUC in August indicated that over a third of workplaces were in breach of the law.
Rule-breaking employers were unlikely to be caught, however, since despite the extra funding and privatised manpower, the HSE managed 40% fewer inspections between April and September than it had in 2019 when we were not, of course, fighting a major pandemic. Is it any wonder that not one employer has been prosecuted for breaking Coronavirus rules, while almost every day we hear of a citizen being fined for doing so?
So how did this happen? The IER team has serious concerns that this entire endeavour suffered due to undue political influence on the HSE. We first saw evidence for this in guidance to employers issued by both government and HSE in May. Despite over 45 years’ worth of health and safety legislation dealing with workplace risks including microbial hazards, all 14 documents published notably made only passing, if any, mention of employers’ legal responsibilities to their workers, or of their workers’ legal rights. In fact, we argue that advice to have workers face away from each other where social distancing measures cannot be maintained will in many cases contradict legal duties on the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Given the government’s assertion that construction workers should not wear PPE, it begins to look as though the HSE is simply parroting government messaging, especially when contrasted with the stronger guidance issued by the Scottish and Welsh governments.