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COVID 19 – the HSE's end of year appraisal

01 April 2021
This article explores the HSE's approach to the challenges of the global pandemic over the last year and the questions raised ahead of the new issues the Government roadmap presents to COVID-19 in the workplace.

On 23 March 2020 at 20:30pm, Boris Johnson addressed the nation and ordered the public to stay at home. Coronavirus was spreading and death rates were on the increase, devastating the global population. All non-essential businesses closed and we were told to work from home where possible with the Government recognising transmission in the work place being a real risk. 

On 17 March 2021, The Health and Safety Executive, MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee and Union leaders met to discuss how the HSE has coped with the unexpected challenges of the global pandemic. 

The HSE has faced its own challenges. In the last 10 years they have faced a 54% cut in its funding. The £14 million given in May 2020 after the Prime Minister’s promise of spot checks to increase confidence in public safety, represents less than 10% of the funding that has been cut. These funds were used to bring in debt collector contractors and set up a triage system to assist the trained HSE inspectors as a short term fix. There appears to be a lot of frustration from within the HSE as they pointed out the shock statistic- there are more parliamentarians than there are health and safety inspectors.

It takes three years to train a HSE inspector, so the feedback provided at the committee meeting expressed that when employers were presented with a HSE contractor inspection, they felt it was a tick box exercise which has added little direction and assistance to whether the employer's workplace was COVID-19  safe. There has even been isolated incidents that as a result of the contractor's employment backgrounds and the lack of training, they have brought the police with them which has instilled fear.

Alongside the lack of trained inspectors, it has been argued that the HSE have failed to properly classify COVID-19, regarding it as 'significant' rather than 'serious' which has led to reduced enforcement action, as the HSE inspectors do not have the powers to properly punish employers for failing to keep their employees safe. The HSE have confirmed that just two Prohibition Notices have been issued, which is a worryingly low number. More concerning, however, is that there is a lower rate of prohibition notices overall, with the HSE admitting that much of their focus has been on COVID-19 and so their planned areas of review and reform e.g. wood dust have been neglected in the pandemonium of the pandemic. 

Grievances were raised by both representatives from Build UK and Made UK during the committee meeting, that when lockdown was first instigated there was not any HSE, PHE information nor any Government guidance specifically for industries that have had to stay open. Even when the guidance came into place, it lacked any form of real direction. There was no specific guidance around PPE and the Union leaders stated that a lot of the time the employers felt that they were making those decisions themselves. The HSE admit that this was the case as everyone was still learning about the new threat and they have had to find a balance between bombarding businesses with the constant changes and keeping people up to date with knowledge. It was clearly a difficult time for everyone. 

Furthermore, the TUC press statement in January 2021 published that safety rules have not been updated since last March and that is despite the improved scientific understanding of how the virus spreads, indicated a lack of action or even priority from the Health and Safety Executive and the Government of COVID-19 being a real threat in the work place. 

Twelve months on, 14,481 people of working age have died with COVID-19, which is 12% of the overall death toll. This suggests that, despite having an opportunity to reclassify COVID-19, the HSE have still not grasped that COVID-19 in the workplace is a real risk. Perhaps this is indicative of the underlying fact that the HSE are regulators of 'at work' risks to health and safety and not of global pandemics that do not delineate between work and general society.

HSE argue that they have been unfairly criticised due to the regulations in place not anticipating a global pandemic. There is no requirement for incidents of disease or deaths of members of the public, patients, care home residents or service users from COVID-19 to be reported, which has led to a systematic underestimating of COVID-19 and therefore they have missed out on vital opportunities to investigate and learn lessons to prevent further disease. Likewise it has not allowed HSE to see the true extent of the issue and act accordingly. 

Additionally, the HSE argue that their job has been made harder by poor socioeconomic factors, with low paid jobs such a fruit picking where employees are at a higher risk due to shared transport and multiple occupational housing. This presents a new challenge to industries that have to stay open but where transmission is impossible to eradicate without a huge amount of funding that is not in the HSE powers to implement. 

In response to these obstacles, the HSE is now taking part in a UK study to understand more about how coronavirus might have been transmitted in workplaces. The National Core Studies programme is enabling the UK to use health data and research to inform near and long-term responses to the virus.

There were also many questions posed by the industry leaders, which went unanswered, that needed to be addressed by the HSE in the future. As an employer, what do you need to do when you get an isolated case or cases? What is the position with vulnerable employees? How will we address mental health and wellbeing as people return to the office? What should be considered in relation to Long COVID-19?

The question was even proposed whether, following 7 EU countries, COVID-19 should be classified as an occupational disease? The HSE made it clear that the Government are responsible for classifying an illness and it would be unlikely for this to ever happen due to the link with the already strained benefits system. 

It was clear from the meeting that a main concern for all parties was the lack of reform in two main areas. Firstly, the insufficient sick pay system for low paid and insecure workers who would suffer financial hardship if they have to self-isolate. Secondly, the Government failing to require employers to publish their COVID-19 risk assessments to give confidence to their staff and customers to ensure compliance.

It will be interesting to see how the HSE copes with the new challenges that the roadmap presents and whether they address the current concerns that have been raised by industry leaders, including reopening of workplaces, workplace testing and vaccinations and long COVID-19 over the next couple of months. 

It will also be noteworthy to see the results of their UK study and whether they adopt a new approach to how they classify and enforce safety concerning COVID-19 in the workplace. As the world is beginning to reopen, it is inevitable the HSE will be met with new difficulties. It is clear that the HSE are under a spot light and it will be vital in maintaining public confidence towards the institution, to see how they deal with the uphill battle they are facing over the next 12 months.

If you require any further information, please contact Simon Belfield.

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