COVID-19 has shown that Scottish occupational health and safety needs radical overhaul, according to a new report.
Occupational health and safety in Scotland after the Covid-19 pandemic makes a number of key recommendations including establishing a “properly funded and staffed” Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Agency (SOHSA).
Published by the think tank the Jimmy Reid Foundation, the report argued that responsibility for health and safety should lie with the Scottish Government in either a devolved or independent Scotland. SOHSA should have similar powers to the Health and Safety Executive but be protected from political interference.
The report argued there were major failures in the pandemic response of Public Health England, the UK government medical and scientific advisors, and the HSE, which meant they didn’t properly protect Scottish health care and other workers. The HSE was also criticised for going “missing”.
Instead of relying on UK health and safety bodies, the report argued that Scotland should have “fully accountable agencies that demonstrate rigour and autonomy”.
Author of the report, professor Andrew Watterson at Stirling University, said that aspects of occupational health have already been handed over in practice to the devolved nations, which they would do well to keep hold of. The devolved nations, for example, were responsible for writing the guidance for the safe returning to work.
He said: “We have seen a sort of shift and erosion of central control, which has been a very good thing to develop the policies you need for your community and economy.”
Health and safety is not devolved to the Scottish government, but there have been consistent and growing calls for another Scottish referendum. Rancour has also been growing over the prospect of an internal market after the Brexit transition period.
Watterson wrote in the report: “Scottish worker health and safety should be based on effective and coherent principles, policies and practices geared to prevention. This is currently often missing or marginalised in a deregulatory climate that highlights ‘flexibility, proportionate and common-sense action’ which is a code for inaction.
“Worker health and safety should never again be neglected in pandemic planning by public health bodies lacking expertise and autonomy and unable to effectively safeguard all workers at risk.”
The report highlights a number of measures that Watterson said are applicable across all UK nations, including adopting the precautionary principle, to prevent harm when scientific evidence is inconclusive. Adoption of the United Nation’s International Labour Organization’s conventions on occupational health and effective precautionary principles is also recommended.
Watterson argued that the link between worker health and public health should now be “inescapable” for all governments post COVID-19, and that policies should take a preventative approach. Also recommended was an occupational health service run within the Scottish NHS.
Hazards and risks to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups need special attention, the report said, as in pandemics diseases can converge and create a syndemic affect, or amplification. So during the pandemic we have seen those with obesity, which is linked to poverty, suffer greater mortality and morbidity from COVID-19. BAME people are more susceptible to COVID-19, but are also as a group suffer greater socio-economic deprivation and exposure to air pollutants, which also increase susceptibility and negative outcomes for coronavirus.
The report also makes some recommendations around gender such as addressing the issues around ill-fitting PPE for women, and the need for sex sensitive risk assessments; and “confronting” gender stereotypes that “leave women doubly and triply exposed to some hazards such as cleaning chemicals at work and home, more housework, childcare, sexual harassment and abuse”.