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Weakness in H&S exposed by COVID-19

Think tank lunches two-year in-depth investigation into UK H&S.
17 March 2021 , Katie Coyne

COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in health and safety regulation across the UK and an overhaul is long overdue, according to the labour think-tank the Institute of Employment Rights.

The institute is calling for a public enquiry into the UK’s health and safety regulatory system, and is establishing an in-depth two-year investigation looking into health and safety related to COVID and beyond, to find potential solutions. The Committee of Inquiry will report back at the end of 2022.

This follows the publication of its report highlighting the “underfunded, light-touch approach” of the government’s COVID strategy, working with an “underfunded” Health and Safety Executive (HSE), that failed to regulate risk to workers and communities. Alongside it were also a number of recommendations to improve the system.

Andy McDonald, shadow secretary for employment rights and protections, said the need for a fundamental review of H&S across the UK had been laid bare by the pandemic.

He added: “It's clear to me that the impact of the pandemic … hasn't caused these weaknesses, it's revealed the fundamental weaknesses in UK labour law in protecting working people.

“And those failures have left workers very badly exposed. So in addition to preventable deaths, a high proportion of those who contracted the virus now suffer long COVID symptoms. Millions of workers have experienced work-related stress, depression or anxiety. And the sad reality is that the UK's existing enforcement system is wholly inadequate.”

In the report, HSE and Covid at work: a case of regulatory failure, 11 specialists in occupational health and safety and labour law reviewed evidence and argued that the government downplayed the risk of risk of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace, particularly in offices.

This was despite Public Health England figures that showed offices accounted for more outbreaks in the second half of 2020 than supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined.

Specialists questioned how it has been possible that enforcement action has been taken against 40,000 members of the public, with holidaymakers threatened with ten years in jail for COVID breaches: yet just 78 enforcement notices, and not a single prosecution, has been taken against employers.

Steve Tombs, professor of criminology at the Open University, described the situation as “scandalous”. He also criticized the decision by the HSE to perform 15-minute ‘spot-checks’ via scripted phone calls rather than physically visiting workplaces.

Tombs has gathered data showing HSE made 15,600 phone calls, including the initial spot check call and subsequent follow-ups where issues were flagged, between May and September 2020. This, he said, then translated into 5,000 physical site inspections – 40% lower than the year previously – and no prosecutions.

The report’s editor, Phil James, professor of employment relations at Middlesex University, said HSE had “deeply embedded” and “longstanding problems” around resourcing, the way it approached its regulatory role, and even its constitutional status.

James said that status “effectively allowed HSE to be captured” by government and business interests and that as well as the obvious remedies needed – around improving resources and enforcement strategies – it needed independence.

He added: “I can't stress that point of independence enough. What is needed is an independent voice to regulate health and safety at work, not one that is at the beck and call of whichever government is in power at a particular moment.”

The report also highlighted the wasted resources of the 100,000 trade union health and safety reps that could have been drafted in to assist.

HSE said it was aware of the report and was still examining its findings.

Some statistics from the report:
• 40% of people testing positive had prior workplace or education contact
• 35.4% of call centre workers were seated less than two metres apart
• £100m lost to the HSE in cuts over the past ten years
• £14m extra funding given to the HSE represents around 0.5% of HSE activity
• 67% of the public favoured random in-person, workplace checks
• 15 minutes was the length of ‘spot check’ phone calls carried out by HSE

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