John Marsh, Chairperson
As the government sets out its road map to economic recovery and a return to somewhere near normality it must not only try to navigate the rocky seas of Brexit, but also plot a route out of this economic and health crisis we are having to endure due to COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic the reality is that the country has suffered. Not only have we seen the closure of many businesses, the loss of people’s livelihoods and an unprecedented loss of life, but the true reality is that we cannot afford to be unprepared the next time we are faced with a new virus.
I acknowledge that the government has gone to great lengths to try to sure up the economy and provide people with financial support but that support needs to be ongoing, because without that support more businesses will close for good.
The problem for the government is that it needs to develop a strategy that prevents the spread of COVID-19 and provide the HSE with the resources to help them support businesses, maintain workplaces that are safe and reduce the spread of the virus.
During the pandemic, the government has asked workers where possible to work from home and many businesses have sent their entire workforce home and now see this type of home working as part of their new business model.
Some businesses may see working from home has a way of reducing their expenditure and no longer having to pay operating cost associated with offices. But working from home is not risk free and although it might be the preferred option for some employers and employees, some people creating a workstation that is DSE compliant maybe unachievable.
Many individuals maybe trying to work in a home environment that is causing them stress and from personal experience, trying to work from home whilst the wife is also trying to work at home and the kids are also doing online lessons is really challenging for everyone; especially when the broadband connection drops off.
Although some businesses see working from home as the future, some are keen to see their employees return to the workplace but for some it maybe not that simple as there might be many premises that may not be able to implement the control measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
For some employers who own or rent accommodation that already has a modern air ventilation system will find it easier to implement the changes required to follow the HSE guidance. But I suspect for many employers and landlords who maybe already struggling financially, they maybe not in a position to afford to pay tens of thousands of pounds installing new air conditioning systems.
One option maybe be to offer businesses a grant like those offered to residents who are trying to make their homes more energy efficient. Without support some businesses may simply ignore the guidance and force workers to return to their workplace and subsequently increase the risk of their employees catching the virus.
Unfortunately, there are possibly more MPs than there are HSE inspectors and unless the government provide the inspectorate with the necessary resources to increase workplace inspections and ultimately support businesses to make their workplaces COVID Safe, people’s lives are a risk.
Throughout the pandemic many safety reps have been at the forefront trying to ensure that their workplaces remain a safe and healthy environment for their fellow employees.
Trying to reduce the spread of the virus has been challenging for the government and employers, especially when the global scientific research and evidence identifies a new mutation or a source of transmission. Aerosol transmission has always been a hot topic of discussion and although acknowledged by some scientists has being a major source of transmission since the start of the pandemic, it took the government nearly 6 months to publish guidance on well ventilated workplaces.
In a joint statement by the safety inspector’s union Prospect’s branch in the HSE and the union’s general secretary Mike Clancy said, “It is not an understatement to say workplace health and safety is now the critical enabler to business and wider economic success. Government funding had been cut by 50% and they must provide sustained investment to put this right” adding the government has failed to “effectively communicate the risks associated with aerosol transmission and the steps that workplaces can take to effectively mitigate”.
It is clear that the government need to accept that there is an increased risk to workers and the need for better workplace ventilation is paramount. But without significant investment in the HSE to recruit more inspectors and an increase in the threat of enforcement, more workers will be at risk of becoming seriously ill from catching the virus.
According to the TUC, analysis of Office for National Statistics released in January revealed that women sewing machinists had the highest COVID-19 fatality rate compared to any female occupation. An example of the appalling working conditions that some workers are having to endure, and the pandemic has highlighted that some workplaces fall well below the required minimum standards.
The threat of enforcement and more inspectors carrying out workplace inspections is the only way that some employers are going to take the health and safety of their employees seriously. It may be true that some employers think that they stand more chance of winning the national lottery than them being visited by a HSE inspector which is why they may think they can get away without writing a health and safety policy and introducing risk assessments and method statements.
But what is true is that without significant investment in the HSE and ongoing support for businesses to implement the required changes needed to reduce the spread of the virus, then people will continue to lose their lives due to work.
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