Most UK workplaces were not contacted by a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector or any other authority to ensure they were following Covid-19 rules, despite a promise from Boris Johnson in May 2020 that “spot checks” would be carried out to protect workers.
Despit this, the Prime Minister suggested workers to return to their workplaces at a Conservative Party conference on Saturday (27 March 2021), raising concern among the government’s scientific advisors.
Less than a quarter (24%) of 2,100 workplaces safety representatives surveyed by the TUC said their workplace had been contacted by an inspector in the last 12 months.
The results of a University of Greenwich report commissioned by the TUC suggest that if more workplaces had received a “spot check”, endemic non-compliance with the rules would have been uncovered.
One in four managers in the food and drinks industry – which has been acknowledged as high risk since early in the pandemic – said they were not aware of any Covid-19 risk assessment having taken place at their workplace.
Meanwhile, a quarter (25%) of workplace safety representatives reported non-compliance with social distancing rules; a third (35%) said adequate PPE was not always provided; and more than half (57%) said their workplace had experienced “significant” Covid-19 outbreaks.
The lack of HSE and local authority enforcement stretches back well before the pandemic, with more than one in five representatives (22%) reporting that they were not aware of their workplace ever having received an inspection.
However, where trade union health and safety representatives were present at the workplace, greater compliance with the rules were found. For instance, the University of Greenwich report showed that 75% of workplaces with health and safety representatives had sufficient PPE compared with 53% of those that did not have a health and safety representative. This confirms the findings of multiple previous studies, which have reported significantly improved workplace health and safety as a result of trade union presence.
TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Too many workplaces are not Covid-secure. This is a big worry for people expecting to return to their workplace soon. And it should be a big priority for ministers too. We must have robust health and safety in place to reduce the risk of infections rising again when workplaces reopen.”
Professor Sian Moore, lead author of the University of Greenwich report, said: “Our research found a worrying lack of health and safety structures in British workplaces. But we also identified the very real contribution to workplace safety made by union reps during the pandemic.
“Workplaces with union health and safety representatives were significantly more likely to report sufficient PPE. Employers are more likely to share risk assessments in workplaces with union recognition and health and safety representatives.
“This shows the important role union representatives play in keeping workers safe. But we also saw a climate of risk and fear in workplaces where unions are excluded or side-lined from risk assessments.”
The IER’s latest report, HSE and Covid a work: a case of regulatory failure, recommends that co-enforcement strategies between government agencies and trade unions are considered as a part of a broader programme of improvements to the UK’s health and safety framework.