Health fears grow as staff get set for the big return to potentially unsafe workspaces

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Millions of workers could be returning to unsafe workplaces without Covid risk assessments while the vaccines are still being rolled out and dangerous variants are circulating.

A survey of union safety reps by the TUC suggests almost half of employers have not carried out a Covid risk assessment or have outdated, inadequate measures in place that may not prevent transmission of the virus.

This comes as staff at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea prepare to strike over safety concerns following the largest workplace outbreak of the pandemic. The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union notified the government agency last week that hundreds of staff in the Welsh city’s offices, where more than 600 workers tested positive, will walk out unless occupancy levels in the buildings are reduced.

The survey, which is the first nationwide poll of safety reps during the pandemic, reveals widespread concerns about the lack of protections, with nearly half of reps warning social distancing is not enforced all of the time and a third reporting a lack of adequate PPE. More than three-quarters of the 2,100 reps surveyed dealt with work Covid cases and almost 60% had seen significant workplace outbreaks.

Yet only a quarter of firms were visited by a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector or environmental health officer during the pandemic, according to the biennial survey. Despite more than 4,500 Covid workplace outbreaks, not a single employer has been prosecuted for breaching Covid regulations during the pandemic.

This comes as many staff are preparing to go back into workplaces under the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. Non-essential businesses including shops, leisure centres and outdoor attractions are due to reopen in April.

England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned this month that despite Britain’s impressive vaccination programme, modelling indicates there would be another wave if lockdown were eased too quickly. Even if 90% of the UK’s priority groups are vaccinated, up to one million people are still vulnerable to the disease.

Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, has called on ministers to order the HSE to crack down on bad bosses who risk workers’ safety. “Britain’s safety representatives are sounding the alarm. Too many workplaces are not Covid-secure. If we want to keep people safe, we must stop infections rising again when workplaces reopen,” she said.

The food industry has been one of the worst hit sectors, with figures obtained by the TUC showing there have been 440 outbreaks in food manufacturing and food distribution since April.

New research, due out this week, claims there is a “climate of risk and fear” in workplaces where unions are excluded or sidelined from risk assessments. It found that one in four managers in the food sector are unaware of Covid risk assessments and that half of non-unionised food factories do not have enough PPE.

Professor Sian Moore, from the University of Greenwich, who led the TUC-commissioned research, 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.”

There have also been frequent Covid outbreaks in offices, with 687 recorded between April and February. More than 2,000 workers are currently going into the DVLA’s offices in Swansea, where workers have told the union they are receiving “continual notifications to isolate” from the NHS app, even through the outbreak was declared as over in February.

The PCS said the strike would be the biggest so far in the pandemic. Mark Serwotka, the union’s general secretary, accused DVLA management of playing “fast and loose” with the safety of its workers. “That PCS members are prepared to take unprecedented strike action shows just how badly DVLA management have failed in their responsibility to keep staff safe,” he said.

The DVLA said it had introduced a range of safety measures and carried out thousands of lateral flow tests for those on site. It said only 10 staff were isolating following a positive test. “We are continuing to carry out risk assessments and have gone beyond the recommendations set by Welsh government by sending home members of staff on full pay,” said a spokesperson. It added the strike would have a detrimental impact on motorists as restrictions start to ease.

A government spokesperson said: “HSE has acted swiftly to ensure that making workplaces Covid-secure is a priority, carrying out more than 138,000 spot checks – over 90% of businesses checked have the right precautions in place or are willing to make the necessary safety changes without any need for enforcement.”

William Cowell de Gruchy, CEO of Infogrid commented on the findings: “This research shows that businesses have to accept that their employees have reservations about returning to the workplace. Organisations need to take action now to prepare the workplace. Not only to make their employees feel safe but to safeguard their ongoing welfare. Employees are now more conscious than ever of how their workplace impacts their wellbeing.”

The cost of not providing a good work environment is high, with half of respondents saying the healthiness of their workplace impacts their productivity. Employees also said it would impact their decision to stay in a business or join a new company. This is backed up by studies from Harvard and over 20 other academic institutions linking air quality to lower sickness rates and higher productivity.


Cowell de Gruchy commented: “As humans we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, and with their health on the line, employees will understandably be expecting more action from their employers to improve their workplace. A failure to meet their standards may see organisations lose talented workers. The challenge for businesses is how they can measure the effectiveness of the steps they are taking to make healthy working environments and reassure their employees. The answer lies in the use of data.”