Urgent government action needed to allow safety inspections of key COVID-19 workplaces

Covid 19 closure

The Unite union is calling on the government to rescind measures preventing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities undertaking proactive, spot check safety inspections in many of the sectors most at risk of COVID-19 transmission occurring.

The sectors where local authorities and the HSE are prevented from making unannounced inspections include social care, health, the transport sector, agriculture, shops, offices, pubs, clubs, postal services and light manufacturing, employing millions of UK workers.

Unite has written to both Alok Sharma, the business secretary, and Therese Coffey, the secretary of state for work and pensions, asking for immediate measures to be introduced to ensure that proactive safety inspections can be undertaken in these sectors.

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, yet nearly 200 workers have died from COVID-19 in those sectors since the pandemic began.

“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.

“In the short term, the HSE and local authorities need to be given the powers and the finances to properly inspect workplaces if we are serious about reducing the likelihood of transmission, ensuring that social distancing takes place and avoiding a second spike.

“Unite has repeatedly made the offer to government to assist with implementing workplace social distancing and ensuring other safety measures are in place. The union has thousands of skilled and dedicated health and safety reps in its ranks who could and should be asked to play a role in protecting the entire workforce.”

The HSE and local authorities are under incredible financial pressure due to a decade of cuts. By 2017 the funding of the HSE had been reduced by 53 per cent compared to 2010, with a  27 per cent reduction in frontline inspectors. While local authorities had reduced spending on health and safety by 41 per cent, with a 48 per cent reduction in inspector numbers.

As part of the Conservative-led coalition government’s “Red Tape Challenge” the HSE moved to end proactive inspections in many sectors in 2011, this was then reinforced by legislation in 2012 when business secretary Vince Cable brought forward measures to formerly outlaw inspections in these areas.