Southampton is back in lock-down and the government’s feeble and sloppy approach to health and safety at work is partly to blame.

Recent research found that nearly half of employees believed the risk of COVID transmission in their workplace was either high or very high, rising to 62% of those who worked in shops and restaurants, and 72% of those who worked in care homes, schools and health establishments. Were those workers right, or were they just fearful?

Official statistics from Public Health England reveal that in 5 weeks to the end of October the incidence of COVID in workplaces doubled, after more than doubling in the previous 5 weeks too. That’s a 450% increase of ‘acute respiratory infections’ in workplaces in 10 weeks. Why?

The HSE is the enforcement agency for 1.26 million workplaces, including most of those in which the general health and safety risk is highest, such as manufacturing, construction and hospitals. In April the HSE issued no COVID related enforcement notices at all, it issued just 4 in May, 36 in June, 63 in July, 46 in August and 73 in September. During a public health emergency, the Health and Safety Executive ought to have been a driving force, but it wasn’t. The government did not give it the mandate and it has starved it of resources for a decade. Today the HSE has a total operating budget equivalent to just £100 a year for each workplace in Southampton that it is responsible for, compared to £224 per workplace in 2010-11.

Wearing of masks in workplaces is unregulated and it is a shambles. Despite being in a workplace, enforcement of the ‘appropriate use of masks’ is deemed to be a public health issue and hence a matter for the Police. That is plain daft, cannot possibly work, and everyone who lives or works in Southampton knows that the Police service has other things to do, and it does not have expertise about workplace health and safety. Outbreaks of COVID-19 in slaughterhouses, food processing factories and large warehouses were not a surprise, they were inevitable.

Southampton City Council’s Environmental Health Team has responsibility for the enforcement of health and safety law and practices in most workplaces, such as shops, food outlets, sheltered accommodation, care homes and nearly all offices. But 12 years of fierce cuts have eviscerated the Council’s capacity to do this. Local authorities issued 80 per cent fewer health and safety enforcement notices in 2018-19 than they did in 2010-11. That was the government’s intention. The government characterised health and safety at work as red tape, waste, and a ’burden on business’.

In response to the pandemic the government did not require businesses to publish their COVID specific risk assessments, and so almost none did. So, every time anyone in Southampton went into a shop, pub, gym, office or care home, customers and visitors were obliged to give the business our blind trust. Most employers did not even consult with staff, which is mandatory. That trust very often was not earned and not warranted.

The TUC estimates that 4.7 million people in the UK economy do some work for which they are legally a worker, but not an employee, such as ‘gig economy’ work. Most of us will know people who work on that basis. Last week the UK courts found that our government had failed to grant workers in the ‘gig economy’ the rights they are entitled to under European directives on safety and health at work. If that sounds arcane and remote, it isn’t. It means failing to give health and safety protections to the van drivers, taxi drivers, people delivering goods on bikes and scooters, that we see every day in Southampton, and the very many other ‘gig economy’ workers that we do not see. The protections ignored include being provided with personal protective equipment by the business they were working for, and the right to stop work in response to serious and imminent danger. These protections for the most vulnerable workers were not even regulated, let alone enforced. The government was letting employers say ‘it’s not my problem’. Well, it was a problem for the worker and for their workmates, it was a problem for their families, and it was a problem for everyone else they passed the infection on to. And it is a problem for well-run responsible businesses in Ipswich that have now been forced to close.

The government’s light touch approach to health and safety at work during the pandemic has been reckless and lethal. Can you imagine a ‘Put that Light Out’ campaign in WW2 with almost no enforcement, and it not even applying to a sixth of properties?

Any good news about effective vaccines for COVID is massively welcome. But the impact of COVID on, and in, the workplace has shone a bright light on the fact that the UK’s commitment to health and safety in the workplace, for workers, customers and visitors is weak, piecemeal, largely voluntary, not rigorously enforced, and not fit for purpose.

The solution is clear guidance, precise regulation, frequent inspection, robust enforcement and where necessary, penalties for non-compliance. We cannot make all workplaces in Southampton COVID safe, but we can make them COVID safer. Careless health and safety at work contributes to the R number, is reckless, damages the economy in Southampton and costs lives.

Joe Dukes – Southampton & West Hampshire Trades Council Affiliate