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       Hazards, number 150, 2020
ABDICATION |  HSE has been missing in action throughout the Covid-19 crisis
It is hard to see what the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has done during the pandemic, MPs found, noting it had only required one business to close. Wrong. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill discovered not a single workplace had been shut by the absentee regulator, which appears to have little idea what is going on.


It can’t have been easy reading for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The workplace health and safety regulator has not been visible enough during the pandemic and has not got the confidence of the public, a group of cross-party MPs has concluded.

FAILED TEST  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.

The Work and Pensions Committee report issued on 22 June 2020, and which is highly critical of the safety regulator, noted HSE had not inspected a single care home – the Covid-19 epicentre as then pandemic developed and the topping the list for work-related deaths – since 20 March.

Office for National Statistics figures published on 26 June 2020, analysing deaths in England and Wales by occupation up to 25 May 2020, noted among women “deaths were largely from women care workers and home care workers (25.9 deaths per 100,000 women, or 134 deaths).”

The rate for all women in the same 20-64 years age group was 9.7 deaths per 100,000 women.

For men, caring was also in the top mortality group, ONS said, noting “caring personal service occupations group, with a rate of 50.1 deaths per 100,000 men, equivalent to 126 deaths.” The rate for all men in that working age bracket was 19.1 deaths per 100,000.

Hundreds of relatively young people, working age and fit enough to be working in care before their infection, had died at more than two and a half times the expected rate despite Covid-19 being characterised as a killer of the vulnerable and the old.

Unite said they had been abandoned, with HSE policy ruling out unannounced, proactive inspections in the sector.  Commenting on 25 May 2020, Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “It is absolutely critical that proactive inspections are re-introduced in all sectors immediately but with emphasis where workers are most in danger of being exposed to Covid-19. It is chilling that both social care and healthcare are excluded from proactive inspections because they were deemed to be low risk.”

Unite said many other sectors where ‘essential’ work had continued through the outbreak, including transport and retail, were also hotspots for Covid-19 deaths.

Pandemic of fear

Other groups of workers were concerned, the MPs found. “Many people are very worried about how safe they are at work during the pandemic,” the Work and Pensions Committee report noted, adding: “The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has received thousands of concerns from workers.”

MPs were bewildered at HSE’s inaction. “HSE has required just one employer to close as a result of coronavirus. It keeps no records on how many workplaces voluntarily close after an intervention by HSE, making it impossible to measure the impact it has had. It should work to improve the transparency of its reporting, to send a clear message about the impact it has had.”

The situation, though, was worse than MPs knew. HSE appears to know little and be doing less. “There has been no instance of a factory closing following an outbreak because of action taken by HSE,” HSE admitted in a 2 July statement to Hazards.

“While we have responded to a number of concerns, we are working alongside local authorities and others in the regulation of workplace health and safety and will work with the local public health authorities to support their understanding of any patterns in the disease where an outbreak has occurred.”

Complacency outbreak

The workplace picture, HSE indicated, was characterised by few outbreaks limited largely to one sector. “HSE is aware of outbreaks in around 20 workplaces,” it said. Most of those outbreaks are in food processing factories and most of the food businesses affected are meat processors.”

It said its inspections after these outbreaks found that companies “generally had good risk controls in place,” adding: “There is more work for businesses to do embedding social distancing behaviours amongst workers through good training and supervision.” 

But HSE deflected responsibility away from its door. “There is a common pattern that factors outside the immediate workplace and beyond HSE’s remit, such as how people travel to work in shared vehicles, may be playing a role in transmission.”

It was a puzzling response from HSE, mirrored in media coverage. The risks were particular to these workplaces because they had large numbers of migrant workers, living in crowded housing and forgoing social distancing rules in shared vehicles. But all these factors were ‘knowns’, and should have been covered and accounted for in the companies’ risk assessments. That is right on HSE’s turf.

And these risk factors reflected structural problems in an industry rife with subcontracting and insecure work and where low pay rates and the absence of paid sick leave when ill or needing to self-isolate fashioned decisions on when to work, how to travel to the job and where to live.

Even then, union members in the infection frontline were pointing to different problems, and inside their workplaces. Unite national officer Bev Clarkson warned there were “major issues” with the health and safety of workers in the meat processing industry and urged employers to implement proper physical distancing and provide adequate protective equipment “to stop further spikes within the sector.” She added: “Unite has warned time and again that coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories throughout the UK were likely.”

HSE said it was “working closely with PHE [Public Health England] and other agencies in England to understand the causes of patterns of outbreak in food processing.”
It added: “HSE is working closely with Welsh government and public health officials in Wales responding to outbreaks in three meat processing plants.”

Intelligence failure

HSE has displayed a worrying lack of on the ground intelligence. The PHE rapid review into the high infections rates that led to an extended lockdown in Leicester noted: “Many of these incidents are related to food factories/outlets”. It added: “There are four situations where shops and supermarkets are reporting staff with Covid-19.”

On top of that a biscuit factory supplying McVities, a Walkers Crisp factory and a Samworth Brothers sandwich factory in the city were all hit by clusters.

Even before you consider the dozens of health service workplaces and care homes where multiple workers have been infected, HSE’s numbers were looking concerningly low.

While HSE believed there had been outbreaks in “about 20” workplaces, a Public Health England (PHE) week 26 report, published on 25 June 2020, noted “school outbreaks have increased over the past 2 weeks from 15 in week 23, to 24 in week 24, to 44 in week 25”. That same week there were 106 outbreaks in care homes and 28 in hospitals, it said.

As well as the usual industrial workplaces, HSE is the enforcement agency covering hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Millions of workers are employed in these sectors. They appear to be entirely out of HSE’s line of sight.

But the picture for HSE was about to get worse. PHE’s week 27 report published on 2 July – the day HSE told Hazards it was aware of “about 20” outbreaks – noted: “There have been declines in the number of care home and hospital incidents, the number of incidents in educational settings remains relatively stable whereas the number of incidents in workplaces has increased from 22 in week 25 to 43 in week 26.”

Out of these 43 cases “36 had at least one linked case that tested positive.” The report confirmed the spread of the virus in workplaces is trending up while transmission in most other settings is in decline.

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.”

In May, Unite’s Gail Cartmail had warned: “The pandemic has exposed how in so many ways the current regulation and enforcement culture in the UK is lacking. There needs to be root and branch reform to better protect workers in the future.”

Only a small fraction of known cases are currently reported to HSE. A rash of anonymous reports to Hazards from union safety reps indicate many employers are refusing to report cases of work-related Covid-19 infection, a criminal offence. One health service union health and safety rep said his employer had refused to report several Covid deaths in staff.

It was story repeated by a number of union reps. Mike Atkinson, UNISON’s North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) convenor, told Hazards: “The NWAS UNISON branch is disappointed that the management decided not to RIDDOR report the two deaths in NWAS and have had no choice but to refer the employer to the HSE. Both deaths were early in the pandemic, when there was confusion about what level of PPE to wear, a PPE shortage, little or no social distancing in the workplace and no extra cleaning.”

EMERGENCY CALL Even Covid-19 deaths are being hushed-up by employers, unions have warned. HSE has taken no enforcement action for a criminal failure by an employer to report work-related Covid-19 cases.

GMB Birmingham and West Midlands senior organiser Stuart Richards expressed concern about the public health officials are also uninterested and unaware of many workplace associations. “We have seen across the country that workplaces are a major contributor to regional spikes of Covid-19 infections,” he told Hazards.

“To reduce the risk to workers' lives, it's essential that we ensure public health officials are able to act as soon as possible following an outbreak in a specific workplace. From the instances GMB union has become aware of, it's clear that isn't happening.

“A recent outbreak at CBS Packaging in Sandwell saw 22 confirmed case before public health officials were informed. The factory has since closed its doors, but not before the number of cases rose to 39. That's a third of the workforce who have now contracted Covid-19.”

The GMB organiser said: “The main reason for the failure to identify workplace outbreaks is that the government's ‘world beating’ test and trace system doesn't actually check where people work. We need this to be changed as soon as possible and GMB will continue to press the government for this to happen.”

Broken laws or not, HSE has to date issued no enforcement notices related to a failure to report Covid-19 cases.

Up to 11 July 2020, fewer than 8,000 work-related cases (7,971) and only 119 Covid-19 deaths had been reported to HSE. A Lancet study published online on 9 July, indicated at the peak of the outbreak up to 45 per cent of healthcare workers could have been infected, putting the toll in the hundreds of thousands in this single sector.

HSE, though, maintains it is doing a good job. In a 6 July 2020 update, HSE told Hazards: “Since 9 March HSE has addressed nearly 8,000 concerns relating to the pandemic. Furthermore, between 26 May and 1 July, HSE contacted 3,856 businesses and 2,386 spot inspections were completed. Around a dozen notices related to Covid-19 have been issued, showing that the majority of businesses we have been in contact with act on our advice.”

HSE could not confirm how many of the spot checks were actual site visits. Nor, despite an explicit request from Hazards, did HSE provide any evidence to corroborate the claim that businesses had acted on its advice or the measures it had in place to assess business compliance.

HSE’s confidence was not shared by all.

Spot the watchdog

MPs were clear HSE was falling short on its core inspection and enforcement role.
“HSE should urgently clarify what its role will be as the pandemic unfolds, the government should then ensure that it receives whatever level of funding is needed to implement this new and future inspection regimes,” the Work and Pensions Committee report added.

None of this should have been news to HSE. A 25 March letter from HSE unions Prospect, FDA and PCS to the chair and the chief executive of regulator, Martin Temple and Sarah Albon, asked them “to fulfil their duty as the independent regulator in charge of enforcing health and safety at work.”

WRONG DIRECTION  Unions in HSE have told Sarah Albon, the regulator’s chief executive, to allow inspectors do their job. Early in the pandemic, the unions called on regulator’s leadership ‘to be robust in fulfilling its duty’ to enforce health and safety at work.

On 11 May 2020, the prime minister, facing questions about how workplace safety measures could be enforced, told the Commons that HSE would be carrying out “spot inspections to make sure that businesses are keeping their employees safe.” Boris Johnson said an additional £14m in funds would be provided to enable this more vigorous enforcement approach.

It was never going to happen. HSE’s enforcement role was criticised in an enforcement review by the European trade union organisation ETUC. “Despite the volume of concerns raised, and the devastatingly high infection rate and death toll, health and safety investigators were sent out just 64 times between April and June,” it noted.

Prospect, the union representing HSE inspectors and specialists, said that “given the time it takes to train new inspectors,” it was likely the new money would be “spent on increasing call centre capacity” to allow more inspections by phone.

Mike Clancy, the union’s general secretary, said: “The extra money that the prime minister’s promised restores less than less than 10 per cent of the £145m that has been cut in real terms.  The right first step would be to restore everything that has been cut in the last decade.”

He added: “If we can’t get this right the country faces a double blow from prolonged economic damage caused by workers feeling unsure about returning to workplaces, and the risk of localised coronavirus hot spots around workplaces that are not following the rules.”

Workers are worried their safety isn’t been treated seriously enough. A YouGov poll commissioned by Prospect and published on 1 June found that 67 per cent of the public thought random in person HSE checks should be carried out, with just 9 per cent saying phone checks would be good enough and 11 per cent saying employers should be allowed to police themselves.

Just 30 per cent of workers said they would feel comfortable going into work if only telephone checks were taking place.

Prospect said health and safety checks have been severely curtailed in the last decade as the government cut funding to the HSE by around 50 per cent in real terms. The £14m pandemic cash boost to HSE came after its funding was slashed from £239m in 2009-10 to £135m in 2017-18.

Staffing levels also fell dramatically over the same period, from 3,702 to 2,501, while the number of inspectors dropped from 1,495 to 978, according to figures from the House of Commons library. Prospect said there are now only “500 main grade inspectors in the UK.”

PHE puppet

But it is not just about resources. It is about an abdication of responsibility. Throughout the Covid-19 HSE has been little more than third tier player in a PHE and government show.

Coronavirus at work: Where is the regulatory leadership?, a 6 May report from the Institute of Employment Rights (IER), accused the watchdog of ‘downplaying’ statutory duties of employers and aligning instead with ‘questionable’ government guidance.
Report author Phil James, an employment relations professor at Middlesex University, noted: “The advice provided by HSE is not framed in terms of ‘what employers must legally do’ and hence downplays its rooting in statutory obligations.”

He concluded that as a result of the safety regulator’s behaviour “not only should the actions of HSE during the crisis be subjected in due course to independent evaluation but that thought needs to be given to how it can be reconstituted to become a more meaningful protector of worker health and safety.”

He said the evidence of HSE’s failings adds weight to IER’s argument “that the time is right for a Royal Commission to be established to undertake a comprehensive review to examine all aspects of health, safety and wellbeing at work.”

Since then, HSE has drifted further into the background, while the workplace has been confirmed as the real coronavirus frontline.

The absentee regulator isn’t just hurting workers.

It is doing itself no favours at all.

Hazards coronavirus webpages.
Coronavirus at work: Where is the regulatory leadership?, IER commentary, 6 May 2020.
HSE coronavirus webpages.
DWP’s response to coronavirus, 4 May 2020.


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It is hard to see what the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has done during the pandemic, MPs found, noting it had only required one business to close. Wrong. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill discovered not a single workplace had been shut by the absentee regulator, which appears to have little idea what is going on.

Pandemic of fear
Complacency outbreak
Intelligence failure
Spot the watchdog
PHE puppet

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