The Department for Work and Pensions has been chastised by the Health and Safety Executive for failing to put “necessary measures” in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at its regional hub office in Leeds city centre.
An inspector said “contraventions of health and safety law” had been identified following a visit to Quarry House at the end of last month and that the department would have to pay a fee because of “material breaches” of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
According to health and safety inspector Geoff Fisher’s report, although DWP undertook a “generic” department-wide risk assessment in relation to Covid-19 that was supplemented with a Quarry House checklist and a “social distancing user guide”, the measures did not go far enough.
“The alterations and controls you have introduced are not sufficient to ensure that two-metre social distance can be or is maintained in a range of circumstances,” Fisher said.
In a report accompanied with photographs of staff clearly grouped less than two metres apart, the inspector said the “stipulated occupancy rate of approximately 50%” set out in DWP’s generic risk assessment “may be ambitious and unrealistic” for some of the department’s offices.
Fisher said the different structural and furniture layouts of offices would have an impact, but the higher the occupancy rate was, the more likely it was that there would be compressed space, creating the risk of congestion, particularly around communal areas, entrances and exits.
The PCS union said the inspector’s findings meant the role of workplace health and safety reps had “never been more crucial”.
“We are seeing outbreaks taking place in a number of workplaces across the country as a result of cost cutting employers risking the health and safety of workers,” it said.
“The Covid crisis has brought home the need for the cuts to the HSE to be reversed, to be fully resourced and for increased enforcement action.”
Earlier this week, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotk wrote to Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm calling for a rethink of the government’s return-to-the-workplace plans for civil servants in the light of rising concerns about a second wave of coronavirus.
At the weekend, it emerged that departments are being encouraged to get 80% of their staff back to their workplaces for at least part of each week by the end of this month.
In relation to DWP’s Leeds hub, which is also a base for some NHS workers, the HSE report noted that a rolling recruitment programme of both agency and permanent workers meant the building's occupancy level was “currently increasing continuously”.
Fisher’s letter gave DWP until 15 September to comply with a list of improvements at Quarry House. They included a review of entrance and exit points to ensure two-metre social distancing is maintained; a review of working times and shift patterns to find solutions to avoid overcrowding; a review of the use of one-way systems; and the introduction of “do not use” signs and boundary tape in communal areas.
A DWP spokesperson told the BBC the department had “taken urgent action” to rectify the issues identified at Quarry House.
“We take the health and safety of staff extremely seriously and have implemented Covid-secure measures across our sites to ensure they comply with government guidelines,” they said.
The department had not responded to CSW's request for comment at the time of publication.