Employers are seriously downplaying the health and safety risks posed to their workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, TUC research has found.
A new report said failings in the health and safety enforcement system are “letting bad bosses off the hook” because the number of people who died after being exposed to Covid at work is being “massively under-reported”.
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, 15,263 people of working age died of the virus between April 2020 and April 2021.
But employers claim that just 387 of these – 2.5% – contracted the disease at work, despite the fact occupation has been identified as a major risk factor and it is known that a high proportion of workplaces are breaching Covid-19 rules.
For instance, employers in high-risk sectors where there have been numerous outbreaks – such as food production and transport – reported just three and ten Covid deaths respectively for the period between April 2020 and April 2021.
This is despite the fact that official Covid statistics showed 63 food production workers and more than 600 people in the transport sector died of the disease between the much shorter period of March 2020 to December 2020.
As previously identified and discussed in the IER report HSE and Covid at work: a case of regulatory failure, the TUC pointed to deficiencies in the reporting and enforcement structures surrounding health and safety law in the UK.
Employers are obligated under RIDDOR (The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013) to log all work-related death, disease and injuries with the regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), but were given “free rein” to decide if Covid infections were work-related or not, according to the TUC report.
Many chose the convenient assumption that the virus had been contracted outside of work, with serious implications for enforcement activity and controlling the spread of the virus.
More accurate information about the scale of the problem may have triggered more urgent action from the HSE, but instead just 1 in 218 workplaces were inspected between March 2020 and April 2021 and no employers were prosecuted for breaching Covid-19 rules.
TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Employers have massively under-reported Covid work-related deaths and infections.
“This has made it much harder for regulators to track where outbreaks are happening and allowed bad bosses to get away with flagrant labour rights abuses.
“It’s staggering that not a single employer has been prosecuted for putting workers at risk of contracting Covid-19.
“The government must fix the deficiencies in how workplace deaths, illnesses and injuries are reported. The current system is letting bosses off the hook.
“And 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.”