THE coronavirus crisis has “brutally” exposed years of failings in workplace safety rules and Holyrood’s lack of powers to fix them, according to a new report for a leading think tank.

The analysis said the pandemic has shown the Scottish Government’s over-reliance on the UK Health and Safety Executive and its inability to protect Scottish workers directly.

It said protections against such an infectious disease were absent in factories, farms using migrant workers, and call centres – with the result that Covid could flourish.

Indeed, it said one of the reasons the pandemic has persisted is because public health has been a “low priority and workers didn’t have the sick pay and job protection” they needed.

Many union leaders have blamed poor PPE and staff fearful of taking time off sick for the explosion of Covid in care homes, where half of Scotland’s 4,200 deaths have occurred.

The report was written by Andrew Watterson, professor of health at Stirling University, for the left-wing Jimmy Reid Foundation. It said Covid had highlighted the UK’s poor record on worker health and safety, driven by successive governments seeking “better regulation”, which was really weaker regulation.

READ MORE: Covid cluster linked to Hawthorn Bar in Aberdeen after 13 new cases

It said: “Occupational health and safety is too often viewed as a cost and a burden on industry, not an investment because the human and economic costs of failures to protect workers can be offloaded on the victims, their communities and the NHS.

The costs are externalised, and so we all pay for bad employer and bad business practices. Health and safety is frequently hidden away or sometimes used by governments to mount ideological and not evidence-based attacks on so-called red tape – ‘elf and safety’ parodies.

It can be considered marginal, primarily affecting industrial and construction workers. 

“This was never the case because poor occupational health and safety through disease and injury adds significantly to NHS treatment costs and patient numbers. Covid-19 has brutally exposed the failures. 

“If the UK had conducted a proper occupational health and safety impact assessment for all workers faced with exposure to Covid, many illnesses and deaths could have been avoided.

“It was entirely predictable that multiple work locations would be hit by the pandemic and it is important the pandemic planning currently in place should now be reassessed as well as reviewed after the pandemic has ended.” 

Watterson recommends a muscular new independent health and safety body to safeguard the workforce, with workers, unions, employers and councils on the board. 
A Scottish Occupational Health Service should also be integrated into the NHS to end private-sector occupational health services which can be distrusted by staff.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Why it doesn't matter if antibodies fade after three months - and how the common cold might protect you from Covid

Future health and safety regimes, either under greater devolution of independence, should be “geared to prevention”, with precautionary principles embedded in the system, rather than left to a light-touch deregulated regime based on “flexibility” and “common sense”.

The report concludes: “Worker health and safety should never again be neglected in pandemic planning by public health bodies lacking expertise and autonomy and unable to effectively safeguard all workers at risk.”

Watterson said: ‘The challenges presented by Covid-19 have revealed many failings in the way the UK has addressed worker health and public health: the two cannot be divided. 

“Scotland has faced the pandemic challenge far better than the UK Government. 

“It is critical it now builds on its work post-pandemic and improves worker health and safety through a range of measures involving health, social and economic policy changes, and with recovery plans that create safe jobs across Scotland in a radical Green New Deal.”

Professor Gregor Gall, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, added: “The Foundation very much welcomes Professor Watterson’s valuable contribution to not only critically analysing the state of play of occupational health and safety in Scotland in the period of the pandemic but also by setting out a number of key recommendations which would significantly enhance the health and wellbeing of workers in Scotland.

“After all, we are constantly told by employers that workers are their most valuable asset. 

“It is time this perspective was realised and Professor Watterson has provided the recommendations which would allow this to happen.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government has taken legislative powers to address the public health emergency arising from Covid-19. 

“The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on those working in our NHS and in social care and we are hugely grateful for the extraordinary hard work, dedication, skill and commitment of frontline health and care workers during this emergency.

“All governments have a duty to ensure they are kept as safe as possible as they work on behalf of all of us.

 “During the pandemic we’ve been taking a collaborative approach, working with employers, workers, unions, police and regulatory bodies including the Health and Safety Executive to support frontline workers and help all workplaces understand how to restart safely, share expertise and work together to create safer workplaces.

“We have long called for the devolution of powers over the regulation of occupational health and safety. 

“This would enable us to tailor regulation to our unique balance of industries and areas like remote and rural working"