Employers are forcing 9% (nearly one in ten) workers back into the workplace unnecessarily, in contravention of government guidance, according to new research.
The results of the poll – conducted by the TUC – come as the UK’s infection rate soars to the highest in Europe, with the vast majority of counties reporting an acceleration in the spread of Covid-19, particularly the Delta variant.
To make matters worse, disabled workers are among the most likely to be forced into the workplace, despite potentially being more clinically vulnerable to the disease. More than one in six (17%) said they had been pressured to go back to offices.
“We all want to beat this virus once and for all,” TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, said.
“But some employers are still needlessly requiring workers to come into workplaces when they could work from home – and this is the tip of the iceberg of bosses ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.”
This week, the government announced it would drop its guidance to work from home where possible when lockdown restrictions end, preferring to allow bosses to decide whether staff should continue to work remotely.
But the TUC urged ministers not to take this step without putting robust health and safety enforcement measures in place.
“When the government does move to unlock the economy, we need workers to be confident their workplaces are safe and Covid-secure,” O’Grady said.
“So, ministers must fund enforcement bodies properly so they can recruit and train qualified workplace inspectors, inspect more workplaces, and prosecute companies who don’t keep their workers safe.”
Among the health and safety breaches recorded by the TUC are that nearly half of workers (46%) say their employer has not improved airflow in the workplace, 29% say they were not consulted on a Covid-secure risk assessment, 17% report not being given PPE, and 11% said their boss has not enabled social distancing.
The TUC called for the government to require the HSE to treat Covid-19 as a “serious” rather than “significant” workplace risk, which allows inspectors to impose more stringent penalties on law-breakers.
Due the ‘less serious’ classification of the virus and a severe lack of funding to enforcement activities, the majority of employers have not received the ‘spot check’ promised by Boris Johnson in May 2020, and despite widespread law-breaking, no employer has been prosecuted.
The TUC called for a funding boost to the HSE and urged the regulatory body to take workers’ complaints seriously; perform spot checks on, and fine, employers who needlessly force workers to attend the workplace; and take a tougher approach to employers not following Covid-19 rules.
In the IER’s report, HSE and Covid at work: a case of regulatory failure, 11 occupational health and labour law experts called for a public inquiry into the management of the disease in the workplace. They recommended a review of the health and safety enforcement model in the UK, including action to make the body politically independent, after evidence arose to suggest the HSE may simply be towing the government line.