More than one in three (35%) employees who were back in the workplace in September were concerned about Covid-19 transmission while doing their job, with the lowest paid feeling the most at risk but the least likely to raise their concerns.
This is according to the Resolution Foundation, which is urging the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities to place more weight on the employee voice as a source of intelligence when deciding where to target their enforcement of health and safety regulations.
Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation, which supported the research, said: “While many on higher incomes will have the option of working from home and reducing their risk of exposure to Covid-19, more of those on lower incomes have no option but to go into work.
“Government has a duty to protect every member of society and must ensure that all employers are able to provide a safe environment for their staff in line with the evidence on Covid-19.”
Despite the steps employers have taken to make their workplaces ‘Covid-secure’, 47% of workers rate the risk of coronavirus transmission at work as fairly or very high, according to the Resolution Foundation’s Failed safe? report.
Workers aged 18 to 24 are a third more likely to be ‘actively concerned’ about Covid-19 transmission at work than those aged 55 to 64, which the report suggests could be explained by the fact that they are more likely to work in customer-facing roles.
Young workers are half as likely to raise their concerns as older staff (36% compared to 67%), perhaps because they make up a significant proportion of workers in sectors where jobs are under threat.
Just over half (52%) of staff in the lowest pay quintile had made their employer aware of their concerns, compared to 72% in the top earnings quintile.
Given employees’ limited sway over organisations’ ability to make workplaces safe, the report says the HSE should take a more precautionary approach to minimising infection risk especially in sectors with high numbers of low-paid or non-unionised staff.
However, it notes that the regulator is facing severe budget constraints and the number of workplace inspections it carried out during the spring lockdown was well below average.
It issued only 221 Covid-related enforcement notices from April to September, which the think-tank believes was too low considering the proportion of workers who have expressed concerns.
The report says: “The risk-based enforcement model that HSE has used for two decades relies on good intelligence, enabling it to direct both its own and local authority efforts at firms where risk of non-compliance is known to be highest…However, little credence appears to be given to the (unorganised) employee voice in this process, missing a key source of intelligence in what remains a rapidly evolving crisis.”
Lindsay Judge, research director at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Given many workers’ limited ability to get employers to address Covid concerns, the UK needs a strong enforcement regime to ensure that workplaces are as safe as can be. But instead health and safety resources have been cut, inspections have been slow, and Covid-related enforcement notices are few and far between.”
It recommends that government funding for both the HSE and local authorities, which also undertake some workplace inspections, is ring-fenced for health and safety enforcement during the pandemic and beyond.
The findings were based on a YouGov survey of 6,061 adults between 17-22 September 2020. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults aged 18 to 65.