The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) state that Covid-19 should be classified as ‘significant’ not ‘serious’ because ‘unlike other life-threatening conditions like asbestos it does not affect workers in exactly the same way’. They further state that they are ‘acutely aware that workers have died following a positive Covid-19 test and for some others it is a very serious condition which may have long-lasting consequences. However, for some workers symptoms may be very mild’.  (HSE enforcement of guidelines on coronavirus in the workplace, 23 March 2021).

It is now clear that Covid-19 is a disease that can kill or chronically disable those of working age without underlying conditions, and is extensively spread by airborne aerosols. Safe workplaces require not only regular cleaning, hand washing and distancing between employees, but also ventilation sufficient to change the air in a room without recirculation.

The Office of National Statistics reports that 6 out of 9 major occupational groups for men, and 3 out of 9 for women, had significantly higher rates of death from Covid-19 than for men and women of the same age in the general population. The highest rates were for men in elementary work in processing plants, which reached 4.5 times the average rates from March to December 2020.

Doctors In Unite considers the current HSE classification of Covid-19 to be wrong. No hazard affects all workers in the same way. It is clear that Covid-19 workplace outbreaks put workers at increased risk of death and long term disability, and there is no reason why it should not be classified as Serious. This matters to workers because, without the Serious classification, Inspectors are hindered in the application of all the appropriate improvement measures specified in the HSE Enforcement Management Model.

There have been over 3,500 workplace outbreaks reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) but only 2 immediate enforcement actions taken as a result. 14,500 people of working age are known to have died, from a disease which overwhelmingly affects elderly people. Not a single employer has been prosecuted for breaching safety regulations, while tens of thousands of individuals have been fined for doing so. 

The HSE’s effectiveness has been severely damaged by years of cuts to its budget and staff losses.  Experts in the field of Health and Safety, and Employment Law, such as the Institute of Employment Rights (IER), say the HSE leadership is guilty of a massive regulatory failure over Covid-19 in a detailed report “HSE and Covid at work: a case of regulatory failure”.  They also say HSE has been “captured by the state”, with the report stating, “In fact, the HSE’s performance raises the further question of whether it can any longer be viewed as a trusted regulator capable of protecting the interests of working people, independent of the shifting, politically driven agendas of government.”

We also saw this failure when the HSE, together with Public Health England and Faculty of Occupational Medicine were asked by SAGE to look into “Mitigation of risks of Covid-19 in occupational settings, with a focus on ethnic minority groups”.  Their consensus statement was little more than a whitewash, endorsing existing, and wholly inadequate guidance in the workplace and ignoring entirely the issue of racism, ascribing the grossly disproportionate deaths of black workers to cultural differences.  Our analysis of their statement is here.

Doctors in Unite joins the TUC and Prospect the Union in calling for the HSE to change its definition as a matter of urgency, to empower HSE inspectors on the ground, who are doing the best they can, to be able to issue prohibition notices and other urgent corrective demands where necessary.