At the intersection

Dr Elizabeth Cotton reviews the IER's latest report - HSE and Covid at work: a case of regulatory failure.

Commentary icon27 Apr 2021|Comment

Dr Elizabeth Cotton

Researcher of employment relations and mental health at Cardiff Metropolitan University

Something that is hard to remember when the gloves come off is that our harshest critics are often those people who have the strongest interests in our survival.

At the risk of sounding like someone who has spent too long in therapy, one of the things that strikes me about this document is how much painful experience lies behind it. The report is part of the political landscape that it comes from, far from the easy charm of senior policy level meetings or the safe objectivity of the research lab, it places us right at the heart of the system of blood and guts that Covid-19 exposes.

Painful as it might be to engage with, it’s a legitimate question to ask whether the regulatory systems we are part of are working in a way that will protect us and I’m glad that these are the people who have raised it. If the politicisation of science teaches us one thing, it is the necessity of the social sciences in understanding the social environment that shapes work (Brook and Darlington, 2013; Thompson and Newsome, 2004), how it’s done and who does it, and the intersection of environmental and embodied factors that influence transmission (Nichols, 1997). Wherever social science is in the political food chain, decades of frontline research (Taylor & Bain, 2007; Watterson, 2020), workplace and political experience (Tombs and Whyte, 2020; Walters, James et al., 2016) are represented here in this report.

Painful as it might be to engage with, it’s a legitimate question to ask whether the regulatory systems we are part of are working in a way that will protect us and I’m glad that these are the people who have raised it.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but those of us involved in health and safety, labour regulation and public health policy research can be a touch pedantic about our particular areas of expertise (Becher and Trawler, 2001). I say that with enormous gratitude for the thousands of scientists, researchers, inspectors and trade union reps who are doing the data dog work that is required. But our tendency to overwhelm through detail is in tension with working across disciplines and translating this data into useful information for use in the workplace. Much is made in this report about the lack of linking between policy and inspections and the trade union system of health and safety officers – the most extensive pool of workplace expertise that exists in the UK. In the case of Covid-19, the insistence on re-establishing a link between the HSE and the people most likely to bring about material change on the ground could be understood as genuinely constructive, rather than as an ideological attack.

One of the issues that this report raises is about where expertise is sourced. The politics of expert advice, once a pet subject of policy-people dinner parties in Walthamstow is now writ large on our collective consciousness. It’s not radical or paranoid to ask the question whose advice is being taken and the nature of the minister-advisor relationship (Cairney and Wellstead, 2021). But an older bigger-issue policy problem is how data is used to underpin political choices that determine public policies, ones which in the literal world of health and safety at work prioritise some bodies over others. How this works requires engaging with the social science of science head on (Latour and Woolgar, 1986).

Although the position taken that HSE is driven by corporate interests will be strongly contested, it is our duty to critically analyse whose interests are being served, or not being served, by how we shape our research and policies. The perspective that we take in how we define occupational risk and how we police this is precisely where the splits emerge along political and institutional lines. Covid-19 is complex and dynamic, blurring the lines between work and not-work while at the same time underlining the fault-lines of inequality including race, housing and working conditions that are embodied at individual and community levels.

Covid-19 requires us to think across the intersections of both work and society, in order to understand transmission and how our responsibilities are inevitably interlinked. Part of taking an intersectional position means accepting that transmission thrives on inequality where occupation and occupational risk are often mapped onto class, race, sex and geography (Carter et al., 2013; Clarke, 2012; Middleton et al., 2020; Mustchin, 2013; Taylor and Bain, 1999). These same inequalities affect whether the ordinary expertise of working somewhere gets captured in our research. Social science alerts us to the silencing and invisibility of the most expert and vulnerable frontline workers, and to the possibility that occupational risk is often greatly under-represented. This omission distorts the data, misrepresenting problems such as the extent of occupational trauma and mental illness (Smith et al., 2008), and misunderstanding what actions are likely to minimise harm. Even from the well-trodden research on health inequalities, Marmot argues that raising welfare benefits would be the easiest way to save lives.

This report restates the sharp end of employment law, inspections and penalties for employers and provides a link to the social science research about the future regulation of work in an emerging system of digitalization and algorithmic managemen

Working at this intersection requires taking a view beyond our own disciplines or industrial positions and engaging with Covid-19 as not just a disease but as a profoundly political project. The experience of HIV/AIDS at work in sectors such as transport and extractive industries, and the decades spent campaigning for recognition of the occupational factors involved can help us understand the life-saving interventions that can potentially be established by all sides of the social partnership if, and only if, political leadership exists (Croucher & Cotton, 2011). And it offers an explanation for why some employers and trade unions, such as those in South Africa, are way ahead in developing occupational responses to Covid-19.

In a way, Covid-19 has forced our hand in how we can legitimately talk about workplace standards and protection at work. This report restates the sharp end of employment law, inspections and penalties for employers and provides a link to the social science research about the future regulation of work in an emerging system of digitalization (Purcell and Brook, 2020) and algorithmic management (Huws, 2020). Although the scale of the underfunding of the HSE might be contested (Mustchin & Martinez Lucio, 2020), and for that matter the public and local authority inspectorate systems, nobody is questioning the scale of the problem accessing those workplaces with the worst working conditions.

At the risk of sounding ancient, once a system of regulation gets dismantled we won’t re-invent it. This is our common interest and it is for this reason that the push back from trade unions and labour academics that this report represents is a constructive part of our collective ambition to survive Covid-19.


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Dr Elizabeth Cotton

Elizabeth has worked as Head of Education for a Global Union Federation in the extractive industries and as a psychotherapist... Read more »