TUC proposals on ensuring a safe return to work

In developing these proposals we note that a safe and effective return to work for all will first depend on the government acting to: 

  • Agree plans with unions for safe operation of public transport including comprehensive guidance to the public on safe public transport use.
  • Put in place national guidelines on the health and safety of those who have been advised to shield, are in a vulnerable group (including pregnant women) or who lives with and/or cares for someone who has been advised to shield or is in a vulnerable group. This should include continued protection from the Job Retention Scheme for those in this position.
  • Put in place a clear plan, agreed with unions, to safely re-open childminders, nurseries and schools on a phased basis. This should be accompanied by continued protection from the Job Retention Scheme for parents for whom continued school and childcare closures mean they cannot work. 

With work re-starting on a phased basis, and a new period of contract tracing and Covid-19 testing underway, further reform to the operation of the JRS to allow short-time working, alongside moves to increase the level and reach of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will also be necessary.

These points are discussed in full in the TUC’s wider earlier submission to BEIS.

Our proposals are also predicated upon government publishing consistent and high-quality sector specific workplace health and safety guidance, developed in consultation with unions and business, to support employers to undertake comprehensive health and safety risk assessments in advance of operations resuming. The TUC has been concerned to see the suggestion in some recent correspondence that the aim of sector specific guidance could be to ensure staff can be ‘made to feel sufficiently reassured on safe working practices without the provision of PPE‘ rather than focusing on which practices need to be put in place to secure safe working. 

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 [1] 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. 

Enforcement

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.

National enforcement forum

A national enforcement forum should be established to oversee the operation of safe working practices nationally. The forum would maintain an overview of operations across the economy, advise on national challenges and review enforcement of the approach. It should include representatives of government, the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities, Public Health England, unions and business.

The forum should follow the approach in Northern Ireland where such a forum advises and supports government in protecting the safety of workers. In Northern Ireland the forum is attended by representatives from unions, business, local councils, government, the Public Health Agency and the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland.

The operation of the national forum should be practically supported by regional approaches involving government, unions and business along with regional Health and Safety Executive officers.

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.