A new report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has claimed that the number of people who have died from exposure to coronavirus in the workplace is being “massively under-reported” by employers.
Analysis from the union highlighted a large difference between coronavirus work-related deaths reported by firms and data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England.
For example, between April 2020 and April 2021, the ONS reported that more than 15,000 people of working age had died from coronavirus.
Despite this, according to reports from employers, just 387 of these deaths came from staff contracting the virus in the workplace.
TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Everybody deserves to be safe at work. But this pandemic has exposed a crisis in health and safety regulation and enforcement.
“Employers have massively under-reported Covid work-related deaths and infections.
“This has made it much harder for regulators to track where outbreaks are happening and allowed bad bosses to get away with flagrant labour rights abuses,” O’Grady added.
The trade union’s analysis also looked into the reporting in certain industry sectors including transport.
It found that in sectors with high numbers of deaths amid the coronavirus crisis, such as food production and transport, just a small portion of deaths were reported as work-related by organisations.
For example, the report explained that ONS data found that between March and December 2020, over 600 people working in the transport sector died.
Despite this, reports filed by employers (between April 2020 and April 2021) cited that just ten deaths in this sector were related to their place of work.
The TUC said it believes that the actual number of work-related deaths in this and other sectors is higher, particularly when taking into consideration safety protocol breaches, as well as high numbers of outbreaks.
‘Letting bad bosses off the hook’
By law, employers are required to report illnesses, injuries and deaths that take place at work or in connection with their work.
This is carried out through ‘RIDDOR’ – the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 which logs this information for the HSE.
Yet, the TUC claimed that under the current reporting systems, firms are given “free rein” to decide whether a coronavirus diagnosis is due to exposure either in or out of work premises.
The union went on to suggest that this may have led organisations to not reporting the true scale of coronavirus work-related deaths and infections to the HSE.
HSE Spokesperson weighs in
Speaking to the Guardian, an HSE Spokesperson said that the variation in the figures was due to the requirements under Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (Riddor).
“Riddor is the first step in HSE inquiries into a case and direct evidence to suggest occupational exposure will be required, which is understandably challenging given the prevalence of Covid in the general population,” the Spokesperson added.
In the pandemic year, several employers have hit headlines over allegations relating to coronavirus rules and health and safety practices.
Earlier this year, HR Grapevine reported on a workplace outbreak of coronavirus at Government organisation the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), where more than 500 cases were recorded at the DVLA offices in Swansea.
At the time, employees claimed that people with symptoms were encouraged to return to work, vulnerable workers had homeworking requests turned down and workers were asked to turn off test and trace so phones did not ping.
Despite these claims, the DVLA insisted that safety was a priority. At the time, the firm said: “Staff in roles that enable them to work from home are doing so and have throughout, in line with current government advice.
“However, in view of the essential nature of the public services we provide, some operational staff are required to be in the office where their role means they cannot work from home.”
Health & safety in the workplace
The health and safety of employees in the workplace has always been a top priority for employers and HR, but even more so throughout the coronavirus crisis.
As more staff start to return to a central place of work as England moves through the ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, health and safety should inform a crucial part of the people functions’ strategy.
Data has pointed towards some of the health and safety-related concerns among staff when it comes to returning to a central place of work, which should be at the forefront of HR thinking.
For example, The Supporting Your Remote Workforce in 2021 and Beyond study found that around 40% of UK office workers were worried about catching coronavirus from their colleagues by returning to work.
Elsewhere, data from CPD Online College found that social distancing appeared to be the biggest concern, with 60% stating it as a worry with workplace safety (56%) and workplace cleanliness (55%) also among the list.