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Safety the top concern as millions begin to return to work

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It's paramount that the appropriate PPE and measures are in place to keep workplaces safe.

The latest in our series of blogs analysing the Office for National Statistics (ONS) faster indicator data continues to show how important the government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS) is for businesses and workers.

The JRS, which unions helped to negotiate, has been the most popular of the schemes set up to support businesses. Around 76 per cent of all businesses who have not permanently ceased trading have applied, whether that’s large businesses employing over 250 employees or Small or Medium Enterprises (SME) employing under 250.

Supporting workers during the crisis

The latest data for the period 20 April to 3 May shows that, of businesses that have not permanently ceased trading, 31 per cent of the workforce continued to be on furlough across all industries. Furlough rates remain highest in the accommodation & food and the arts, recreation and entertainment sectors.

The scheme is as much of a lifeline for businesses who are continuing to trade as those who have temporarily paused or ceased trading, with around a fifth of the workforce in the former category now on furlough.

Many businesses continuing to trade have also reduced hours and used temporary lay-offs to manage the impact of the coronavirus. The chart below shows that across all industries, 32 per cent of businesses continuing to trade have used decreasing working hours to manage the crisis and 39 per cent have used temporary lay-offs.

While it is not surprising that businesses may take this approach, it is likely to cause and exacerbate financial hardship and uncertainty for many workers.

We are already beginning to see the difficulties the crisis is causing for many, with Citizens Advice research finding that over 13 million people have already been unable to pay at least one bill because of the pandemic. The food bank charity The Trussell Trust has reported its busiest ever period , with 81% more food parcels given out during the last two weeks of March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

The latest Universal Credit data shows applications are also at record highs , with 2.6 million declarations for UC from March 16 to May 12 – almost five times the rate just before the crisis hit. During the same period, just under a million advance payments have been made to claimants.

While the JRS and other initiatives to support businesses and workers through this crisis have been vital, the latest indicators show that flexibility will be essential in supporting businesses and workers to adapt as we emerge from lockdown. Unions have been consistently calling for measures to support businesses and workers to continue for as long as is needed to ensure a safe return to work.

Health and safety must be the priority

The latest data shows that even before the Prime Minister instructed some workers to start returning to work, some businesses had begun the process of reopening. Of businesses currently still trading, across all industries 6 per cent started trading again within the last two weeks, with a higher incidence of businesses in accommodation and food (19%), construction (15%) and manufacturing (12%) starting to trade again.

For those returning to their workplaces (as with those who have continued working as usual during this crisis), it is paramount that the appropriate PPE and measures are in place to keep workplaces safe.

Worryingly, data from the ONS suggests that workers are very concerned about health and safety in their place of work.

Many are particularly worried about the ability to social distance, with 80 per cent of workers expressing concern how this will be maintained in their workplace. 40 per cent also raised the availability of PPE as a concern, amid worrying signs that enough still isn’t being done to ensure workers are safe.

Before more people return to work workplaces must put robust safety measures into place. We welcome the government’s changes to their original guidance on returning to work and the extra funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). But it’s not enough.

The government should work with unions and follow our proposals to ensure every workplace is safe.

We’re calling for:

  • A legal requirement for employers to publish a risk assessment.
  • A ramping up of enforcement and prosecution with additional support for the HSE and Local Authorities to inspect and challenge every workplace that is breaking the rules.
  • All workers to get the PPE they need to work safely.
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