The word ‘unprecedented’ has become so overused in any conversation about the coronavirus pandemic, it is hard to find superlatives. But what has certainly been ‘remarkable’ in the health and safety space has been the rapid response coordinated between government, regulators, duty holders and workers, writes Great Britain's Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in a special article for IOSH magazine.
While control of transmission of coronavirus has been led by public health authorities, the role of the HSE has been pivotal in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of those who worked through lockdown and beyond. Notably, of course, those working in both public and private sectors ensuring critical services and supplies were maintained, but also employees who have returned to the office, shop or construction site as we’ve moved back into the workplace.
The HSE’s role has always been to support the wider national public health effort through assessing and reducing the risk to workers and others in the workplace, but ‘unprecedented’ times call for exceptional initiatives.
Our response has continued to apply the principles of being an enabling regulator and taking proportionate action to achieve the best, and safest, possible outcomes; the same principles which over the past 50 years has made Britain one of the safest places to work.
'The use of intelligence, communications and new regulatory approaches has allowed us to deliver the service in a targeted and proportionate way'
The HSE scientific research and expertise has informed our guidance for employers and workers, alongside which the HSE established the Covid-19 spot check programme. As Covid checks are fairly straightforward to carry out compared to the challenge and complexity of our usual inspections, we were able to draft in extra support to enable us to reach as wide a constituency as possible and complete over 345,038 spot checks since the programme began.
Doing the right thing
What became clear very quickly when the HSE started the spot check programme, was that the majority of businesses wanted to do the right thing. The old adage, ‘good health and safety is good for business’, has held especially true during the last 18 months or so and most employers recognise that investment in the health and wellbeing of their workforce, is an investment in their organisation.
Angela Storey, HSE’s director of operations who is leading the spot check programme, says: 'We developed this brand-new service rapidly and effectively, in a truly collaborative way, with HSE teams working with other government departments, local authorities and third-party providers. The use of intelligence, communications and new regulatory approaches has allowed us to deliver the service in a targeted and proportionate way.
'We have received positive feedback from businesses throughout the programme.'
People want to know what they need to do and respond positively. The HSE will always take enforcement action where appropriate, but often education or compelling reasons will help put things right immediately. This could be verbal advice, a written letter or serving an improving notice – whichever will ensure the most immediate and effective results.
Powers for action
Some examples of the types of failings encountered by inspectors include inadequate cleaning arrangements, insufficient ventilation, lack of risk assessment, inadequate consultation with employees, and inadequate or absent hand-washing facilities. Inspectors will remain engaged with a duty holder until the failings have been remedied.
Of course, our inspectors have a range of enforcement powers available to them to make sure workplaces are meeting Covid safe standards. Realistically it is not possible to eliminate risk of virus transmission in the workplace completely. It is also extremely hard to demonstrate conclusively that someone has contracted coronavirus in the workplace, as opposed to say on the bus on their way to work, or in a supermarket for instance.
'We’ve repeatedly stressed that prosecution is a last resort, but this case clearly illustrates that where there is consistent disregard to Covid or other risks to employees’ health and safety, HSE will use its powers to take action'
However, while there might be difficulties in proving a death was as a result of a breach of legislation, there are circumstances where a prosecution could be imagined. The prosecution process can be lengthy and not always the best use of time and resource, but in the rare circumstances where there are multiple health and safety breaches and non-compliance, the HSE does not hesitate to pursue legal proceedings.
In July 2020, an HSE inspector performed a proactive Covid-19 spot check at a construction site in Manchester. A host of safety issues were identified including working at height, welfare, Covid-19, site security and electricity. The principal contractor was served with a Prohibition Notice and two Improvement Notices.
A return inspection on 17 August found few or no improvements had been made and additional enforcement action was taken including serving a further Prohibition Notice. The contractor failed to comply with any of these measures and subsequently pleaded guilty to breaches of section 21 of the Health and Safety at Work Act and regulation 13(1) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. He was sentenced to a 12-month community order and ordered to pay £3000 towards costs and a victim surcharge of £95.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Rebecca Vaudrey commented: 'This is the first prosecution to arise from the spot check programme. We’ve repeatedly stressed that prosecution is a last resort, but this case clearly illustrates that where there is consistent disregard to Covid or other risks to employees’ health and safety, HSE will use its powers to take action.'
Businesses must control risks and review and update their risk assessment, employ workplace controls including adequate ventilation, sufficient cleaning and good hand hygiene, and ensure they communicate with workers and their representatives to help reduce risk. Spot checks include questions about work-related stress and welfare standards necessary for the well-being of employees, from the provision of washing, toilet and rest and changing facilities, to somewhere clean to eat and drink during breaks.
For good employers, being mindful of the health, safety and wellbeing of their workforces has always been an inherent part of running a good business and always makes good business sense, not just in these ‘unprecedented’ times.
The HSE Covid-19 response in numbers
368,685 COVID-related cases completed since the start of the pandemic
345,038 completed Covid spot checks (22,904 concerns and 743 outbreaks contribute to the 368,685 above)
150,310 site visits
12,908 cases received verbal advice
2,370 case required written correspondence
365 cases resulted in notices being served
Case study: Virgin Active
The leisure industry has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. The closure of clubs during lockdowns saw a huge drop in Virgin Active’s revenue and it was keen to establish new and safe ways to maintain business whilst keeping COVID-19 at bay.
Gemma Arnold, Virgin’s health and safety manager, says: 'We really did everything that was the right thing to do morally, but also officially, to make sure that members and teams and anyone else entering the premises were safe at all times. In my opinion, we went above and beyond. We stopped people drinking directly from water fountains. It didn’t make sense for someone’s face to be where someone else’s face had been.'
By July 2020, two months had been spent looking at every area of operations from ventilation to cleaning to gym capacity, while taking care of more clinically vulnerable staff members, assessing needs on an individual basis. In the summer of 2020 Arnold became aware of the spot check programme. She describes it as an opportunity, a way to 'really help' Virgin Active know they were following the guidance, ensuring the safety of teams and members, together with external verification that they were doing the right thing.
Arnold chose to have all of the sites visited by an inspector rather than an initial phone call feeling it would enable the best snapshot of life at the clubs and would be beneficial for the club teams to receive feedback and understand any failures. A six-week spot check and inspection programme across 37 sites followed, from February to March. Arnold says the inspections gave staff a chance to show off their hard work and increased team morale across frontline team from cleaners and reception staff to swimming and PT instructors.
Arnold concludes: 'It’s ever evolving at this stage. Making sure that everyone is safe when they’re in the club is important. I think spot checks gave us the extra boost to get through some of the tougher times and to understand that yeah, we’re doing the right thing. It helps us to hold on a bit longer, to keep the control measures in place.'