Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, the Health and safety Executive (HSE) has abdicated it's responsibility for health and safety law enforcement in the nation's workplaces for which it has jurisdiction.
By failing to implement it's responsibility to enforce health & safety standards and health & safety law and to act on the over 2,000 complaints received since the Covid-19 outbreak, about the forcing of employees to work in workplaces that are not covid-safe and also enter customer's premises without having first done a risk assessment and/or provided employees with appropriate PPE; the HSE has blood on its hands says Unionsafety.
As workplace infections continue to soar, not all one single employer has been punished this last year for breaching Covid safety laws bending the rules.
Since the outbreak of the Pandemic, the HSE has remained totally silent over the risks in workplaces, the deaths from the virus and totally failed to inspect the workplaces under their remit. Indeed at the 9th June 2020 press Covid Briefing given to report on Covid by the Government, Sarah Albon HSE CEO attended, but said nothing at all! She was even invited to comment but did not!
Trade Unions and their Union Safety Reps, the health and safety organisations and community have repeatedly highlighted the lack of engagement from the UK's premier enforcement agency in providing clear and scientific guidance and response go the pandemic.
Even a Work and Pensions Committee report issued on 22 June 2020, was highly critical of the HSE, noting they had not inspected a single care home – the Covid-19 epicentre as then pandemic developed and topping the list for work-related deaths – since 20 March that year. Section 11 of the report can be downloaded from the Unionsaftey E-Library here
HSE has largely remained silent and behind the curve of scientific knowledge on such things as the wearing of masks, the need for appropriate ventilation in office environments, and the need for social distancing in workplaces; to name just three major issues. Where it has provided advice, it has been woefully slow in issueing information and guidance with absolutely minimum public announcements, other than to merely back-up Government policies on all things Covid related.
It appears the HSE has not even mentioned in relation to Covid, specific legislation that protects workers, e.g. the Employment Rights Act of 1996 and the specific right of employees to remove themselves from work environments and practices which they consider to be of risk to their health and wellbeing as provided for in Section 44 of the Act.
Even worse, its knowledge of the true state of workplace deaths from Covid is inaccurate and lagging well behind the actual facts. The Work and Pensions Committee report refereed to above, said MPs were concerned at inadequacies in HSE’s reporting regime for work-related cases. It recommended HSE “quickly adopts a more proactive response to ensuring that the risks and deaths linked to workplace coronavirus exposure are properly recorded by care homes, NHS bodies, and other workplaces where there is a high risk of exposure to the virus.”
Hazards Campaign has been severely critical, and justifiably so, of the enforcement authority throughout, and indeed even before the Covid outbreak, as has Trade Unions and their members.
'On 2 July, Public Health England reported the spread of the coronavirus in workplaces was trending up while transmission in most other settings was in decline.' wrote Hazards editor Rory O’Neill in a far reaching article on Hazards website'
HSE’s lack of awareness of work-related cases had already attracted criticism. The Work and Pensions Committee report said MPs were ‘concerned’ at inadequacies in HSE’s reporting regime for work-related cases. It recommended HSE “quickly adopts a more proactive response to ensuring that the risks and deaths linked to workplace coronavirus exposure are properly recorded by care homes, NHS bodies, and other workplaces where there is a high risk of exposure to the virus.”
The evidence that Covid is being spread through the UK's workplaces, and the lack of 'Covid Safe' workspaces and processes has been illustrated by Hazards and Trade Unions, time and time again; but still the HSE remains silent and appears not to have issued any advice to the Government and certainly has never criticised the Government' risk filled policies from day one of the pandemic.
Ever since the first lockdown, employers have been in the main, lacking in their responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of the workforce and have been lacking in following Government advice, such as it has been. Furthermore, they have been breaking the law and refusing to report cases of work-related Covid-19 infection. Hazards tells of one health service union health and safety rep saying his employer had refused to report several Covid deaths in staff!
The extent of the risks to the health of the workforce of the UK has been so great that if has been necessary for the organisation of Zero-Covid policies and the development of a campaigning organisation with a Zero Covid Conference held via Zoom. See Hazards Campaign Announces Zero Covid Conference
This week, highlighting the serious situation in workplace infection spread of Covid, The Guardian newspaper reports that:
'Analysis by the Observer shows that no enforcement notices have been served on companies by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors for Covid safety breaches since the country went into the latest lockdown, despite being contacted 2,945 times about workplace safety issues between 6 and 14 January. Overall, just 0.1% of the nearly 97,000 Covid safety cases dealt with by the agency during the pandemic appear to have resulted in an improvement or prohibition safety notice, with not a single company prosecuted for Covid-related breaches of safety laws'.
Referring to the latest Public Health England surveillance data the news item continues:
'...workplace infections surged as people returned to work in January. The number of coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces rose by almost 70% in the first week of the national lockdown, with 175 Covid case clusters reported in English workplaces, not including care homes, hospitals and schools. New polling carried out by the TUC shows that fewer than half of workers are in workplaces with Covid-secure risk assessments.'
With the Government now blaming the public for flouting Covid rules, no recognition or condemnation of employers forcing their workers to return to workplaces and the bending of Covid rules has been forthcoming, prompting the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady to comment:
“If the government is upping enforcement, ministers should start with employers who break Covid safety rules.” whilst calling for big increases in resources for the HSE to stop rogue employers getting away with putting staff at risk.
It is not as if the Government and the HSE are not aware of the extent of law-breaking and falsifying of documentation given to employees by companies in order to hide the fact they are breaking the rules.
Professor Susan Michie, who sits on one of the government’s Sage subcommittees, reported by The Guardian as saying that people were being needlessly driven into workplaces amid a raging pandemic, which has pushed the NHS to the brink in many parts of the country. “Every day I get contacted by distraught people who are being forced into workplaces, which they feel are completely unsafe. They are having to choose between the risk of serious illness or death and losing their job – not to mention the risk of spreading the virus on the way to and from work.”
An example of this being:
Richards (not his real name) had to travel by train into work and was told to call clients who had previously bought luxury handbags. “There were eight of us in the store that day. We were masked up but there was hardly any socially distancing,” he said. “Every single facet of what we’re doing could be done in the comfort of our own homes. But we’re being forced to go in. It’s an irresponsible act, for the sake of a little bit of profit for a multibillion-pound company.”
He added that staff had been given letters in case they were stopped by the police on the way to work. “It says, ‘We are carrying out duties of click and collect and home deliveries.’ Nowhere does it say, ‘This person is in the store selling’, which is what we are actually doing.”
Despite the numerous and on-going criticism of the HSE and despite Sarah Albon's nomination for the prestigious Safety & Health Practitioner award of *Most Influential Individual in Health & Safety2020 because of:
“Her work and that of the HSE through the most trying and testing times, has to be applauded by all HSE Professionals.
It remains to be sign if the HSE actually begins to act with responsibility and starts to fulfill it's role as the UK's primary Health and Safety enforcement agency and prosecute those employers breaking Covid Rules and putting into danger their employees lives.
In order to get back public faith in the HSE, its first action must be to prosecute those company bosses who have already cost the lives through workplace infections of Covid, of the workers and of their families!
*Note: This year .won by Greater Manchester Hazards' Hilda Palmer
Source: Hazards / The Guardian / unionsafety