Specific to Health and Safety legislation, what we do best, the below sets out the TUC’s view of the immediate action that needs to be taken to ensure safe working and secure public support for a widespread return to work.
Reinforcing our previous articles and blogs.
Production of risk assessments
As the lockdown eases and staff return to work, the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 will require all employers with five or more employees to undertake a specific Covid-19 risk assessment. The TUC is concerned to ensure that this happens in every workplace across the country, and that all workers  are aware of their right to expect such an assessment to take place. Workers’ confidence in workplace safety will depend on comprehensive risk assessments being completed and complied with across every UK workplace and safe working systems being introduced as a result of those assessments.
Employers are already legally required to consult with union health and safety representatives where a union is recognised. Health and safety reps are well-trained experts playing an important role in preventing illness, injury and death at work. Their role is recognised and protected under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and they have special legal rights to investigate workplace hazards, represent their colleagues and be consulted on changes to working practices.
All risk assessments in unionised workplaces should be produced in consultation with union representatives and actions to guarantee safe working should be agreed with unions.
In non-unionised workplaces wider workforce involvement should be sought in conducting risk assessments and putting safe working arrangements in place.
Black and ethnic minority workers have suffered disproportionate harm from the impact of Covid-19 and the NHS now advises that risk assessments must give specific consideration to BME workers. This approach must also be followed across the economy.
Publication of risk assessments
The government should require not only the production of risk assessments (as per existing legislation) but also their publication. Again, this requirement should apply to all employers of more than five employees. Assessments should be made available on employers’ own websites and submitted to a government portal. They should be proactively shared with the workforce and made available to all employees. Risk assessments should be completed and submitted to the government portal before staff are expected to return to work.
Enforcement of publication should be the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), regardless of the sector of the employer and the workplace safety enforcement agency that usually applies.
This proposed process is comparable with that recently put in place for gender pay gap reporting, which is run by a relatively small team within the Government Equalities Office (GEO) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) already publishes guidance and risk assessment templates on its website for all sizes of employers. These could easily and quickly be updated and promoted to ensure they are specific to the health and safety risks of the Covid-19 pandemic and the sector specific guidance referenced above.
Proactive enforcement of these requirements must be a priority.
Regulatory responsibility for enforcing health and safety at work is split mainly between the HSE and local authorities. Local authorities have primary responsibility for most retail outlets and warehousing and distribution, with the HSE covering most other workplaces covered by the current BEIS safe working sectoral groups.
Our regulatory bodies face significant resource pressures. The HSE budget has been cut by a third over the last decade and local authorities’ capacity is under severe strain. Enabling these bodies to fulfil their enforcement role effectively will require an immediate and meaningful increase in resources for the Health and Safety Executive and local authority inspection capacity. This relatively small investment is vital to secure safe working, build confidence and restore growth.
All workplaces should be subject to spot checks from the HSE or local authorities. Regulatory bodies should establish a risk-based hierarchy of priority employers for physical inspection visits rather than relying solely upon telephone advice.
Employers who do not comply should face strict sanctions, including fines and ultimately government action to prevent their businesses operating until appropriate health and safety measures are in place. Persistent offenders should be prosecuted.
Informing the public
These measures must be supported by a fully-funded, high profile national information campaign that seeks to set out the public’s health and safety rights including the requirement that every employer produces and publishes a Covid-19 risk assessment in line with sector specific public health guidance. This must be supported by a single reporting route (online and a phone line), operated by the HSE. The HSE should triage all reports, including anonymous reports, and allocate them for investigation to the appropriate body. It must collate all reports and the action taken by all enforcement agencies into one report, available monthly, to inform the national enforcement forum’s work.
Workers and employers must also be reminded of the existing right of workers to refuse to work in situations that present serious and imminent danger to them, their colleagues or members of the public, and not to suffer detriment if they do so.
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