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The TUC has today (Monday) warned that employers are breaching official guidance by forcing staff to “needlessly” work in offices and other workplaces – and says that this points to wider a health and safety enforcement crisis.    

New TUC polling reveals that nearly 1 in 10 (9 per cent) staff have been put under pressure by bosses to return to the workplace – a number that rises to over 1 in 6 (17 per cent) for disabled workers. 

This is contrary to current government guidance – and the union body says it is “the tip of the iceberg” of employers ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.  

The findings come amid heavy speculation that the Prime Minister will today delay ending Covid restrictions in England, including the work from home guidance, in a bid to combat the sharp increase in Covid cases.

Breaching government guidance

The TUC says the government must send a “clear message” to employers not to breach the current guidance - which states that people should work from home if possible – to reduce community transmission and keep workers safe.   

Today’s polling reveals that 1 in 4 workers (25%) are working from the office or other workplaces despite being able to work from home.

The union body says employers have a duty to make sure their staff are safe.

Until such time government guidance changes, workers should not be required to work from their office or workplace if they can do their job from home, and companies should make use of the furlough scheme if they cannot enable workers to work from home.    

Health and safety concerns

The polling also reveals that many employers have still not taken the necessary action to ensure that workplaces are Covid-secure:

  • Nearly half of workers (46 percent) say their employer has not taken technical measures to improve airflow at their workplaces
  • 3 in 10 staff (29 per cent) said they were not consulted by their employer on a Covid-secure risk assessment 
  • 1 in 6 staff surveyed (17 per cent) say they have not been given Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • 1 in 10 (11 per cent) say that social distancing still isn’t enabled in their workplace

The TUC says that at present workers have little recourse if their employer forces them to come into the workplace when they could do their job from home.  

The union body says that ministers should tell workers who are inappropriately told to come into workplaces to call the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – which should then trigger a spot check from the HSE.    

If staff are not reasonably enabled to work from home, the TUC says, this may be evidence that the employer has ignored their responsibilities and is breaking health and safety law.    

Employers who unreasonably require workers to come into the workplace when their job can be done from home should be fined.    

Enforcement crisis

To date not one company in Britain has been prosecuted and fined for breaching Covid-19 safety rules - despite outbreaks at many workplaces.   

The TUC is calling on the government to step up enforcement against companies who take risks with workers’ safety.    

The TUC says the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities must clamp down much harder on bosses who put staff at risk – and must have the resources to do so.     

The union body is calling for the government to reverse cuts of the past decade to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which it says left Britain “under-prepared and vulnerable” to the pandemic. 

The last ten years has seen real term cuts of 50 per cent to the HSE budget, on top of local authority budgets being slashed.   

There has also been a dramatic decline in inspections. There were 27 per cent fewer HSE inspections carried out in the UK in 2019 than 2011, amounting to a fall of over 5,700 a year.  

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:   

“We all want to beat this virus once and for all.

“But some employers are still needlessly requiring workers to come into workplaces when they could work from home – and this is the tip of the iceberg of bosses ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.

“Employers should not be able to ignore government safety guidance with impunity. It puts workers at risk and increases community transmission. 

“The government must send out a clear message to employers to play by the rules or face serious action.

"When the government does move to unlock the economy, we need workers to be confident their workplaces are safe and Covid-secure."

“So, ministers must fund enforcement bodies properly so they can recruit and train qualified workplace inspectors, inspect more workplaces, and prosecute companies who don’t keep their workers safe.”  

Frances added:    

“If you are being forced to work in your office or other workplace when your job could be done from home – or if you feel unsafe in any type of workplace – please get in touch with your union. 

“And if you’re not in a union, join one today.”    

The TUC is calling on the government to get a grip on Covid workplace safety and:     

  • Tell workers to call the HSE if they are being forced into workplaces unnecessarily   
  • Require the HSE to follow up all reports of workers being forced into workplaces with a spot check   
  • Fine employers who force workers into workplaces unnecessarily   
  • Clamp down much harder on rule-breaking bosses, including those who are still not meeting the legal requirement of conducting a risk assessment.    
  • Require the HSE to designate Covid-19 a “serious” workplace risk rather than just a “significant” workplace risk, which has led to a foot-dragging approach to enforcement.
  • Make sure there is enforceable Covid-Secure guidance for every type of workplace once restrictions have ended, developed in consultation with unions and employers.
Editors note

Polling on being forced back into the office and workplace safety: BritainThinks conducted an online survey of 2,134 workers in England and Wales between May 13 and May 21 2021. All respondents were either in work, on furlough, or recently made redundant. Survey data has been weighted to be representative of the working population in England and Wales by age, gender, socioeconomic grade, working hours and security of work in line with ONS Labour Force survey data.   

- Polling on returning to the office when able to work from home: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2,020 adults, of which 1,203 are currently in employment. Fieldwork was undertaken between June 7 and 8 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).  

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