A person in protective clothing spraying a workplace with disinfectant

Under the microscope: H&S during COVID-19

The Resolution Foundation has dug down into the difficulties of enforcing pandemic restrictions in today’s workplaces.
22 December 2020 , Hannah Slaughter, economist

Independent think tank the Resolution Foundation has a mission to improve the living standards of low to middle incomes and has looked at a range of issues including the impact on the labour market of Brexit, Living Wage, housing, statutory sick pay and more.

Recently it put health and safety during COVID-19 under the microscope in its report Failed Safe. EHN Extra caught up to find out more.

Why did you carry out this piece of work?
Before the coronavirus pandemic, most workplaces were not viewed as inherently risky. But over the past year, every workplace where people come into contact with one another has become a potential health risk. This has meant big challenges for H&S enforcement – and after two decades of funding cuts, the system initially struggled to respond to the scale of the crisis. Now more than ever, robust enforcement is essential to protecting the health of workers, and by extension the population at large.

Was there anything that struck you the most?
One surprising finding was that younger workers are more likely to be concerned about health and safety in the workplace. We had expected older workers to be the most concerned, given that COVID-19 generally poses a greater risk to their health – but we found that 18 to 24-year-olds were one third more likely to have a workplace concern than 55 to 65-year-olds. This finding was entirely explained by jobs that younger workers do, which are more likely to be customer-facing.

On the employer side, it was striking, and very worrying, that three in ten employees who raised a concern with their employer have not seen their concern addressed in any way. This share rose to well over a third of those in customer-facing workplaces and those in more precarious forms of work, such as zero-hours contracts. Despite almost all employees saying their employer has taken at least one step to make their workplace ‘COVID-secure’, many employers still seem reluctant to resolve specific concerns.

What is the significance of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) deeming COVID-19 a “significant” risk rather than a “serious” risk in the workplace?
Enforcement activity needs to be proportionate to risk and enforcement officers in HSE and local authorities have fewer powers to use against businesses that break the law under ‘significant’ risk, as opposed to ‘serious’ risk.

HSE’s risk classification is based on the ‘healthy worker effect’, which is grounded in the (likely relatively mild) impact on a worker with no underlying health conditions. But our report argues that many workers do have higher clinical vulnerability. And given that COVID-19 poses a risk to public health, the risk level should take into account the risk of community transmission.

For the average person in the population, who is likely to be older and sicker than the average worker, COVID-19 can have far more serious consequences. Taking this into account in the risk classification would give enforcement officers a wider range of powers.

The report highlights that lower paid workers are less likely to raise concerns with employers. Can you explain why this is?
Low-paid workers tend to have lower levels of power at work, meaning that they are less able to raise concerns, either because they are worried about the repercussions such as losing their job, or because they feel it would make no difference. This has been exacerbated during the pandemic as customer-facing sectors like retail and hospitality have been hardest hit by public health restrictions, and there are now far fewer jobs available. And when low-paid workers do raise concerns, we found they are also less likely to see their concerns resolved.

Your report found almost half of employees didn’t know how to escalate a complaint that wasn’t dealt with. Was this surprising?
When we have looked at other workplace rights, such as minimum wage underpayment, we often see a low awareness of how to seek redress combined with a lack of power to take effective action. And given that for most workers, H&S in the workplace is a new concern, it is perhaps unsurprising that the problem is particularly acute. This highlights the need for increased worker awareness of the options available for those with non-compliant employers.

One of your recommendations was to place more weight on the employee voice. How would you do this, for example through trade unions?
Unions are clearly an important avenue for many workers. One in six workers said they would approach their union if a hypothetical concern they had was not resolved. But only a quarter of employees are union members, and those who are most vulnerable, such as workers on zero-hours or temporary contracts, are even less likely to be unionised. Therefore, it is important to have routes available for those workplaces without union representation. Individual workers already get in touch with HSE call centres – HSE could put more weight on these individual complaints, including analysis of call centre data to better understand the types of workplace where complaints most commonly arise.

Another recommendation is that HSE take a precautionary approach. Can you explain what this means?
HSE’s current, risk-based approach is relatively light-touch and focuses on educating and supporting workplaces to comply with law and guidance, a low level of inspections and a reluctance to escalate quickly and issue notices and penalties. Taking account of the impact of wider community transmission would justify a more precautionary approach, which – supported by additional resource for HSE and local authorities – would involve more proactive inspections, particularly of the business types that our evidence suggests are at high risk of poor practice, and swifter recourse to notices and fines for those employers found flouting the rules.

The report also recommends H&S enforcement money for HSE and local authorities is ringfenced. How big a problem are funding cuts?
Over the past decade, HSE’s funding has fallen by almost 60% in cash terms (before accounting for inflation), even as the number of premises it is responsible for has expanded. Even after the government announced extra funding in May, HSE had a total operating budget equivalent to just £100 a year for each premise it is responsible for, compared to £224 per workplace in 2010-11.

Local authorities, too, have faced significant real-terms cuts in their overall budgets over the past decade. Budget pressures have only worsened in the face of COVID-19, as councils’ incomes have declined and demand for their services and operating costs have risen, meaning that local authorities may not have been able to direct all additional resources to workplace health and safety.

Following the release of our report, we have engaged with HSE to support them in better understanding the types of workers most at risk of non-compliance, particularly those with low worker power and whose voices are the least likely to be heard.

We would definitely be keen to hear from your readers, too, if they have thoughts on how our findings could be operationalised.


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