Civil service trade unions have called on the Health and Safety Executive to directly intervene to ensure employers follow government guidance on coronavirus precautions amid concerns that requests for increased working from home are not being followed.
Prospect, the FDA and PCS have written a joint letter to the HSE for the second time in a week asking management to raise the issue with the government on behalf of the public and their members.
The unions say that, despite guidance from the government that only essential workers should be going to work, some employers are stretching the interpretation of this to keep as many people as they can working. As well as potentially putting HSE inspectors at risk if they have to visit a workplace, this also puts workers in danger and increases the likelihood of insurmountable pressures on the NHS.
They have called on the watchdog’s top management to “fulfil their duty as the independent regulator in charge of enforcing health and safety at work” and take action against employers not following the guidance. The unions say that a letter at the end of last week to the chair and chief executive has not been responded to.
The letter stated that there is “significant disquiet” about HSE’s apparent silence on what is clearly a workplace issue, and highlights that the a cross-party group of 128 MPs has also written to government asking for action.
Calling for an urgent response, the letter said: "We are concerned not only by the apparent inaction but also by the potential reputational damage this will cause to HSE as an independent regulator in the longer term.”
Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, said that the government “remains behind the curve on its response to the epidemic in its advice to workers and employers”.
He added: “We are a week into lockdown but every day Prospect receives more concerns from members. They are either having to go to work despite not being key workers, or they are key workers and are worried about the number of non-key workers they are forced to encounter.
“The HSE has a regulatory duty to protect health and safety at work. We call upon HSE to pressurise the government to provide clarity on who should be going out to work, and who should not. If you leave things open to interpretation, some employers will inevitably take advantage and put workers and the capacity of the NHS at risk.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told Civil Service World: “The health and safety of our members is paramount.
“We need to see the government put in place measures that allow for the maximum amount of staff to do homeworking.
“A decade of austerity and underfunding has left departments short of necessary equipment and ministers need to address that as a matter of urgency.”
Responding to the concerns, an HSE spokesperson said it was “constantly reviewing the fast-moving situation with our partners across government to support the national effort to tackle Covid-19”.
They added: “While social distancing is fundamentally a public health measure introduced to reduce the spread of infection, we recognise the concerns raised on social distancing within the workplace and are in contact with trade unions.
“Where HSE identifies employers, who are not taking action to comply with the relevant PHE guidance to control public health risks, (for example, employers not taking appropriate action to socially distance or ensure workers in the shielded category can follow the NHS advice to self-isolate for the period specified), we will consider taking a range of actions to improve control of workplace risks. These actions include the provision of specific advice to employers through to issuing enforcement notices to help secure improvements with the PHE guidance.”
Employers should take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home, the spokesperson said.
They added: “Where it is not be possible to work from home you can still travel for work purposes, provided you are not showing coronavirus symptoms and neither you nor any of your household are self-isolating. Employers should where possible follow social distancing and handwashing guidance.”