Specialist lawyers at Irwin Mitchell have expressed their concerns after it emerged that workplaces putting employees at risk of contracting coronavirus remain open.
The Observer reportedthat the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforcement database reveals it has not issued any Covid-related prohibition notices, allowing the immediate halt of activity deemed injurious or damaging to health, since last March. This is despite more than 3,500 outbreaks of the virus at workplaces since the start of the pandemic.
This follows the Government defending the HSE’s decision to classify Covid-19 as ‘significant’ rather than place it in the highest category of ‘serious’ after Labour’s shadow employment minister Andy McDonald questioned it.
Employment minister Mims Davies responded that the workplace classification “best supports inspectors in making sensible, proportionate, regulatory decisions” and the effects of Covid were, as a whole, “non-permanent or reversible, non-progressive and any disability is temporary.”
Roger Maddocks, specialist workplace illness lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said:
“As Covid-19 still continues to affect thousands of people around the country, it is vital that workplaces are taking every precaution necessary to prevent their employees from being at risk of this terrible virus.
“More than 117,000 people have now died as a result of Covid-19, and while most deaths have been in those beyond working age, there have been many deaths within the working population. We have also seen a number of well-publicised workplace clusters of the virus.
“The first-hand accounts we’ve heard about the impact of coronavirus don’t reflect what is being said and indicate that the effects of Covid are anything but, as a whole, ‘non-permanent or reversible’, ‘non-progressive’ and that ‘any disability is temporary.’
“It is entirely reasonable for everyone to expect to feel safe at work, Apparently inspectors have been told they can simply leave crowded work sites where they feel threatened, but there is very little they can do to stop people working immediately, but with coronavirus not being classed as ‘serious’, workplaces are remaining open and employees are undoubtedly being exposed to a danger that should be avoidable. Inspectors have powers to issue Prohibition Notices where there is risk of serious injury, which contracting Covid clearly carries. They should be encouraged and supported to issue Prohibition Notices where employers are failing to adequately protect their workforce from the risks of Covid.”
Latest figures from Public Health England show that a total of 3,549 Covid-19 outbreaks had occurred in workplaces since last July, and 100 outbreaks last week alone.
However, according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), no employers have been prosecuted for Covid safety failings. Some inspectors have claimed the lower-risk ‘significant’ classification is restricting any action being taken with regards to closing businesses and issuing prosecutions.
As Andy McDonald calls for urgent review of the classification, experts at Irwin Mitchell are urging employers to prioritise the safety of their staff.
Roger added: “Through our work, we have handled many legal cases involving exposure to dangers in the workplace.
“Employers have a legal duty to keep their staff safe and we call on them take precautions and provide suitable and effective personal protective equipment.”