Last Tuesday, I spoke to an audience of over 80 workplace health and safety union reps at UNISON’s Health and Safety Live event about the importance of a robust health and safety regime and how the erosion of public services infrastructure left this country ill-equipped to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
This pandemic has exposed the many deficiencies in workers’ rights and protections. Sadly, too many have worked in unsafe conditions because of the Government’s failure to enforce workplace health and safety standards or to provide the financial support needed for people to self-isolate.
The failure to put proper protections in place, putting staff in great danger—as we have seen in the health and social care sector—is a direct result of gutting local authority resources and in particular the Health and Safety Executive, which has been left powerless to enforce the rules that it was formed to uphold, with almost £150 million in real-terms cuts between 2010 and 2018 and about 500 inspectors let go.
Since 2010 Government funding for the HSE has been slashed by more than half, there have been 30% fewer enforcement notices, a 62% fall in prosecutions, and a 50% drop in convictions. Spending on health and safety by local authorities has also fallen by over 40%.
At the same time neglecting the enforcement of workplace protections, thereby allowing employers to flout the law in the workplaces they control and to put at risk the health and safety of workers and, in turn, the wider public.
On average, employers will only see an inspector once every 275 years. But a majority of workers say spot inspections should be conducted in person, and key workers whose work is affected by the coronavirus have identified health and safety as their biggest concern.
From this point on, it is about how we rebuild our country and secure our economy. That objective has to have working people—their interests and their health and wellbeing—right at the forefront.
Trade unions and safety reps work night and day to keep workplaces COVID-secure. They need a robust health and safety regime to make sure workers are protected across the country.
Laws to protect workers are not worth the paper they’re written on if we cannot enforce them. The Government has been too slow too often in tackling the coronavirus outbreak and needs to up its game. Without full resourcing, there cannot be an effective system for workplace inspections, putting workers, their families and the public at risk, and undermining the national effort to fight this virus.