Whistleblowers must be supported to prevent workplaces from seriously undermining efforts to stop COVID-19 transmission, safety campaigners have warned.
The Hazards Campaign has asked the Health and Safety Executive to set up an anonymous hotline for workers to get advice and report poor workplace hygiene and non-compliance of the two-metre social distancing.
They are also urging that all COVID-19 serious illness and deaths of workers be reported and investigated under RIDDOR.
On 2 April, HSE told the Hazards Campaign that workers must go through the usual complaints procedure by notifying their line manager of their concerns. Safety campaigners have long held serious concerns about this method of raising H&S issues even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, but say the issue is now even more urgent.
However, there does appear to be a method of bypassing management and confidentially reporting directly to HSE on its website here.
HSE refused to comment on whether it had changed tack but the guidance on the webpage does not say employees first have to raise concerns with management.
Hazards Campaign is urging workers to report using this form but is still pushing for an anonymous telephone line to give help and advice.
The form on the website still asks workers to give their personal details and the campaign said they have known of instances where confidentiality has been breached. Campaigners argue that these workers, often on low wages and financially insecure, face blacklisting if they raise H&S issues with management.
Spokesperson Janet Newsham said: “It’s something we are concerned about because we know it would be difficult for zero hours staff [to report H&S issues] at other times – it’s much more difficult for them to speak out and stop work.”
The Hazards Campaign is also concerned that many of the places where poor hygiene and social distancing is taking place is occurring at non-essential workplaces – not related to medical or food production.
They welcomed the statement earlier on in the week from the HSE, Trades Union Congress, and the Confederation of British Industry in which the watchdog said it would take action against businesses that flout guidance.
It said: “Firms that can safely stay open and support livelihoods should not be forced to close by misunderstandings about government guidance.
“But if it comes to the HSE’s attention that employers are not complying with the relevant Public Health England guidance (including enabling social distancing where it is practical to do so), HSE will consider a range of actions ranging from providing specific advice to employers through to issuing enforcement notices, including prohibition notices.”
However, Hazards Campaign raised concerns around the wording in the joint statement as it states employers should follow PHE guidance on social distancing and hygiene “where it is practical” to follow, and in the guidance itself HSE states “where possible”. Campaigners say this gives employers a get-out with which to not comply.
The campaign also want workers who pick up COVID-19 at work - but who will be ill at home, and in some cases die in hospital - to be reportable under RIDDOR. Newsham argued that it should be reported in the same way that an asbestos death is reported and investigated to see whether it is work-related.
She added: “If you are continuing to work then the likelihood is that it is work related, and if it isn’t picked up in the workplace then it’s likely picked up on the way to the workplace. But it should be recorded and then investigated. We don’t say we shouldn’t report asbestos.”
HSE said: “As prevalence of coronavirus increases in the general population, it will be very difficult for employers to establish whether or not any infection in an individual was contracted as a result of their work.
“Therefore, diagnosed cases of COVID-19 are not reportable under RIDDOR unless there is reasonable evidence suggesting that a work-related exposure was the likely cause of the disease.”
HSE gave EHN Extra further comments on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic here.