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One in ten workers “needlessly” forced back into workplaces, survey finds
14/06/2021
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Commuting during the covid-19 pandemic

UK workers are being forced to “needlessly” return to their employers’ places of business in breach of official government guidance, according to the findings of a new survey that a union body says points to wider a health and safety enforcement crisis.    

TUC polling of more than 2,100 currently employed, furloughed, or recently redundant individuals revealed that nearly one in ten workers have been put under pressure to return to the workplace – a number that rises to more than one in six for disabled workers

This is contrary to current guidance with the union body stating that the findings of its poll were just “the tip of the iceberg” of employers ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.  

The survey results come amid heavy speculation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will today delay ending coronavirus restrictions in England, including the work from home guidance, in a bid to combat the sharp increase in covid-19 cases.

The TUC said 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.   

Despite being able to work from home, one in four workers are currently working from their employer’s office or other workplaces, according to the survey, with nearly half of respondents claiming their employer has not taken technical measures to improve airflow in their buildings.

Almost one-third of respondents said they were not consulted on their employer’s covid-secure risk assessment and one in six were not provided with personal protective equipment. Of particular concern was that one in ten workers said social distancing has not been enabled in their workplace.

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, the TUC said, adding that companies should make use of the furlough scheme if they cannot enable workers to work from home.

To discourage rule-breaking, ministers should encourage workers to contact the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) if forced into an unsafe working environment, with the regulator following up all reports with spot checks, the union body continued.

To date, no British employer has been prosecuted and fined for breaching covid-19 safety rules, despite outbreaks at many workplaces. In March, hundreds of DVLA workers in Swansea, Wales voted for industrial action after 560 employees tested positive for the covid-19 virus.

The TUC is calling on tougher health and safety enforcement and argues that employers that unreasonably require workers to come into the workplace when their job can be done from home, or fail to conduct a proper risk assessment, should be fined.

The union body also called on the HSE to designate covid-19 a “serious” workplace risk rather than just a “significant” workplace risk, in a bid to strengthen enforcement.

“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,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.

“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.”

The TUC poll comes as employment lawyers anticipate an increase in employee whistleblowing over covid-safety concerns.