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Third of workers fear catching Covid-19 at work

04 November 2020

MORE THAN one-in-three (35 per cent) workers have an active concern about the transmission of Covid-19 in their workplace – with low-paid workers most likely to be worried, but least likely to raise concerns or see their complaints resolved – according to new Resolution Foundation research.

Failed Safe? – supported by Unbound Philanthropy and the Health Foundation, and drawing on an online YouGov survey of 6,061 adults across the UK – examines the extent of workers’ Covid concerns, what steps employers are taking to make workplaces Covid-secure, and how unsafe practices are dealt with.

The report finds that nearly half (47 per cent) of workers that spend time in the workplace rate the risk of Covid-19 transmission at work as fairly or very high. And despite 90 per cent of employers taking multiple steps to mitigate risks – such as providing hand sanitiser or enforcing social distancing – over one-in-three (35 per cent) workers are still worried about catching Covid on the job.

Failed Safe? notes that Covid concerns are driven by both workers’ personal characteristics and where they work. Covid concerns are most common among black, Asian and minority ethnic workers (47 per cent), those living in a household where someone’s shielding (45 per cent), and among workers in caring (44 per cent) and customer-facing (41 per cent) roles, such as shops and restaurants.

However, the report shows that workers who are most worried about Covid in the workplace are often the least likely to raise concerns about it.  For example, the workers in the lowest weekly pay quintile are far less likely to raise Covid-related safety complaints as those in the highest pay quintile (52 per cent, compared to 72 per cent).

Similarly, 18-24-year-old workers are almost half as likely to raise a Covid-related complaint as 55-64-year-old workers (36 per cent, compared to 67 per cent) despite a higher share of young workers expressing concerns about catching the virus at work (a finding driven by them being more likely to work in higher-risk customer-facing roles).

The Foundation says these findings suggest that workers’ worries about Covid aren’t just about the kind of jobs they do and their personal characteristics, but also their ability to ensure their employer makes their workplace more ‘Covid-secure’. For example, the lowest paid workers are around half as likely to report their Covid complaint was fully resolved as the highest paid workers (15 per cent, compared to 29 per cent).

The Foundation says that given workers’ limited ability to force their employer to resolve Covid safety concerns, the UK’s health and safety regime needs to step up its role in tackling the risk of catching – or spreading – the virus at work.

However, the report notes that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has entered the pandemic severely under-resourced, with its budget per premise under its inspection remit more than halving over the past decade, from £224 in 2010-11 to just £100 in 2020-21.

This lack of resources, coupled with HSE’s risk-based approach to enforcement, meant that HSE were slow to respond to the pandemic. The number of workplace inspections was well below average during lockdown (though inspections have picked up since), and just 221 Covid-related enforcement notices issued from April to September – a number wildly out of step with the extent of employees’ worries about the virus in the workplace. In part this reflects that Covid is not deemed a serious enough risk to grant inspectors stronger enforcement powers.

The Foundation says policy makers should overturn the current view that health and safety is a ‘brake on business’ and take a more proactive approach to enforcement in the face of the pandemic. After all, it says, ’Covid-secure’ workplaces aren’t just important for workers: they’re vital if firms are going to bounce back from the pandemic with busy, fully-staffed premises, factories and offices.

Lindsay Judge, research director at the Resolution Foundation, said, “More than one-in-three workers are worried are catching coronavirus on the job, despite the extensive steps employers have taken to make workplaces Covid-secure.

“Worryingly, those who are most worried about catching Covid, such as low-paid workers in customer-facing roles, are also the least likely to raise a complaint about it, or to have their complaints resolved.

“Given many workers’ limited ability to get employers to address Covid concerns, the UK needs a strong enforcement regime to ensure that workplaces are as safe as can be. But instead health and safety resources have been cut, inspections have been slow, and Covid-related enforcement notices are few and far between.”

Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation, said, “Where we work can have a significant impact on our health, particularly during a pandemic.  While many on higher incomes will have the option of working from home and reducing their risk of exposure to Covid-19, more of those on lower incomes have no option but to go into work.

“Government has a duty to protect every member of society and must ensure that all employers are able to provide a safe environment for their staff in line with the evidence on Covid-19.”