Ministers should rip up laws that were designed to reduce red tape but which are putting workers and their families at risk of Covid-19 infection, the Unite trade union has said.
The UK’s largest union called on the government on Sunday to restore the power of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to perform spot checks on social care institutions, shops and pubs.
The coalition government introduced measures in 2012 to outlaw proactive inspections in such workplaces because they were deemed to present minimal danger to workers’ safety.
Unite, however, has written to the business secretary, Alok Sharma, and the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, saying that the same places are among the most risky during the coronavirus pandemic and pointing out that many had been to forced to close.
Unite’s assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail, said: “I am sure you will agree that in order to protect workers in these sectors where inspections are currently barred and also to help boost public confidence as the return to work continues, both measures should be immediately rescinded.”
She said all workplaces should be “made aware that they face the possibility of a proactive inspection conducted by either the HSE or local authority as appropriate”.
In a subsequent statement, Cartmail said: “It is chilling that both social care and healthcare are excluded from proactive inspections because they were deemed to be low risk, yet nearly 200 workers have died from Covid-19 in those sectors since the pandemic began.
“In the short term, the HSE and local authorities need to be given the powers and the finances to properly inspect workplaces if we are serious about reducing the likelihood of transmission, ensuring that social distancing takes place and avoiding a second spike.”
Environments where HSE and local authorities are not allowed to perform unannounced inspections include social care, health, the transport sector, agriculture, shops, offices, pubs, clubs, postal services and light manufacturing.
Unite said the possibility of an inspection would make workplaces more likely to go to the greatest possible lengths to ensure they were protecting staff adequately.
The reduction in HSE’s powers, led by the former business minister Vince Cable, came a year after the organisation voluntarily restricted its own inspection regime in the face of huge cuts to its budget.
The government announced £14m in extra funding for HSE this month, but Unite pointed out that its budget been slashed from £239m in 2009 to £129m for 2019-20.
A government spokesperson said: “We have set out detailed guidance to help businesses consider what steps they need to take for workplaces to operate as safely as possible to reduce risk of transmission of Covid-19.
“While the Health and Safety Executive continues to follow up reports about compliance and safety in a range of workplaces, they also provide support and guidance to local authorities who remain responsible for retail and leisure premises.”
Unite’s intervention follows concerns raised by safety experts, who said people going back to work may be unwittingly using personal protective equipment with false safety certificates.
Health and safety organisations including the British Standards Institute (BSI) said they had seen an increase in PPE being sold with documentation that is either inaccurate or has been falsified.