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Survey reveals widespread workplace Covid failures

30 March 2021

THE TUC’S 2020/21 survey of more than 2,100 workplace safety representatives, reveals that many employers are failing to follow Covid-secure rules and keep workers safe.

Safety representatives are trained worker experts, with protected legal rights under the Health and Safety at Work Act.  They are often on the frontline of safety enforcement in workplaces across the public and private sector. Employers must consult safety representatives on their risk assessments and Covid-secure action plans. 

But the TUC’s biennial survey has found that, in many cases, employers are failing to follow Covid-secure rules – and this is putting workers at risk of infection and avoidable illness. 

Survey findings on Covid-19 and health and safety at work

  • Risk assessments: More than a quarter of safety representatives said they were not aware of a formal risk assessment being carried out in their workplace in the last two years, covering the period of the pandemic. One in ten (9%) said their employer had not carried out a risk assessment, while 17% said they did not know whether a risk assessment had taken place. Of those who said their employers had carried out a risk assessment, more than a fifth (23%) said they felt the risk assessments were inadequate. 
  • Workplace outbreaks: More than three-quarters of safety representatives (83%) said employees had tested positive for Covid-19 in their workplace, while more than half (57%) said their workplaces had seen a “significant” number of cases. 
  • Enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive: Less than one quarter (24%) of respondents said their workplace had been contacted by a Health and Safety Executive inspector, or other relevant safety inspectorate in the last 12 months. More than a fifth (22%) said their workplace had never been visited by an HSE inspector, as far as they were aware.
  • Social distancing: A quarter (25%) of representatives said their employer did not always implement physical distancing between colleagues through social distancing or physical barriers. Just over a fifth (22%) said their employer did not always implement appropriate physical distancing between employees and customers, clients or patients.
  • Personal protective equipment: More than a third (35%) said adequate PPE was not always provided. 
  • Mental health concerns and stress: Almost two-thirds of safety representatives (65%) said they are dealing with an increased number of mental health concerns since the pandemic began. Three-quarters (76%) cited stress as a workplace hazard.

Comments from health and safety reps

  • Rebecca, safety rep in social care: “Managers refused to do risk assessments back in March [2020], but by summer they started to do it. I am proud that I fought hard for that, and for better PPE.”
  • Tom, safety rep in transport: “My employers have been slow to react to the pandemic and have not followed through with legal guidelines.”
  • Kate, safety rep in central government: “The biggest problem in my workplace has been a lack of requirement for the workforce to self-isolate until positive cases were confirmed and tracing contacts identified - potentially adding to further spread of cases of infection. Trade union Health and Safety reps prompted improvements to desk spacing to ensure social distancing, and provision of hand sanitiser at all entrances and exits.”
  • James, safety rep in an NHS hospital: “Covid-19 has raised stress and anxiety levels. People are anxious, depressed and despondent. Stress levels are really high. Staff are at breaking point.”

University of Greenwich report

Alongside the reps survey, the TUC is also publishing today (Monday) a report commissioned from the University of Greenwich, which shows an absence of health and safety compliance in UK workplaces. 

The research found 1 in 4 managers working in the food and drinks industry – a sector that’s had several covid outbreaks – were unaware of a Covid risk assessment in their workplace. 

The report also shows those in workplaces with union health and safety reps were significantly more likely to have sufficient PPE (73% versus 53% of those with no health and safety representative).

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said, "Britain’s safety representatives are sounding the alarm. Too many workplaces are not Covid-secure. This is a big worry for people expecting to return to their workplace soon. And it should be a big priority for ministers too. We must have robust health and safety in place to reduce the risk of infections rising again when workplaces reopen.   

“Everyone has the right to be safe at work. The government must take safety representatives’ warnings seriously. Ministers must tell the Health and Safety Executive to crack down on bad bosses who risk workers’ safety. And they must provide funding to get more inspectors into workplaces to make sure employers follow the rules. 

“Unionised workplaces are safer workplaces, and union safety representatives save lives. We send our thanks to the safety reps across the country for all they are doing to keep working people safe in the pandemic.” 

Professor Sian Moore, the University of Greenwich report’s lead author, said, “Our research found a worrying lack of health and safety structures in British workplaces.  

“But we also identified the very real contribution to workplace safety made by union reps during the pandemic.

“Workplaces with union health and safety representatives were significantly more likely to report sufficient PPE.

“Employers are more likely to share risk assessments in workplaces with union recognition and health and safety representatives.

“This shows the important role union representatives play in keeping workers safe. But we also saw a climate of risk and fear in workplaces where unions are excluded or side-lined from risk assessments.”