SERIOUS concerns have been raised that the risk of covid transmission will increase if reopening workplaces is not managed properly including ongoing enforcement of public health and health and safety legislation.

As the routemap guidance indicates there could be the start of a return to the workplace for non-essential staff from next month, Scottish Hazards, a charity which advises staff in non-unionised workplaces, is calling for workplace interventions by enforcement officers to ensure employers meet their health and safety obligations to workers and the public. They say this should include ongoing workplace covid security, occupational stress and general health and safety.HeraldScotland: An empty Buchanan Street in Glasgow during lockdownAn empty Buchanan Street in Glasgow during lockdown

Ian Tasker, project worker, for Scottish Hazards, which saw its case loads soar in the past 12 months to more than 400, said: “Some employers were willing and able to put profit before people during the pandemic and this has to, in part, be down to a failure by health and safety bodies to have an adequate response to the pandemic where it was clear the work environment posed a significant risk to transmission.

“Irresponsible employers have been allowed to ignore their obligations to provide a safe and healthy work environment, to carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessments and have in place adequate consultation mechanisms to ensure their workers are informed of and involved in discussions and decisions on matters affecting workplace health and safety.”

Read more: Scotland's proud aviation heritage celebrated with new trail and website

Figures from Freedom of Information Requests by Scottish Hazards, seen by the Herald on Sunday, revealed there had been 784 covid workplace outbreaks or incidents from March1, 2020 to March 31, 2021 according to Public Health Scotland figures recorded by Scotland’s 14 health boards. The highest number of outbreaks was 162 in Lanarkshire, 120 in Fife and 112 in Lothian while Glasgow had 92.

However, of the 780 plus workplace outbreaks, according to FOI responses to Scottish Hazards from HSE, they carried out 25 workplace outbreak investigations; issued verbal advice in 11 of these; visited 10 locations, and issued two Notifications of Contravention to employers following a HSE intervention in relation to these outbreaks. A further 62 workplaces were visited by local authority environmental health officers where they have responsibility with no enforcement action taken following these visits.

HeraldScotland: Ian Tasker, a project worker with Scottish HazardsIan Tasker, a project worker with Scottish Hazards

The charity believes that the HSE and, to a lesser extent local authority environment health departments have been happy to let PHS be seen as the public face of covid enforcement when workplace outbreaks occur.

Mr Tasker added: “In a response to a number of questions Scottish Hazards asked the HSE on covid enforcement they reminded us they were not Scotland’s public health regulator, a fact of which we were obviously aware. However, Scotland’s public health regulator, PHS, in a response to a request for similar information said they did not hold information on the number of premises they have inspected following workplace outbreaks. It would appear that neither health and safety enforcers or public health understand the important link between having adequate health and safety systems in place, as employers are required to do by law, and the impact failure to do so can have on prevention of occupationally transmitted covid.

“We would add, however that one or two local authorities have investigated concerns raised through Scottish Hazards while others have been less cooperative.

“Cursory checks of workplace social distancing and hygiene measures are not an indication employers are managing covid risks effectively on an ongoing basis, examination of risk assessments, consultation procedures and investigation of worker involvement and consultation on covid risk assessment and control measures by qualified HSE enforcers should have been what workers could expect, particularly after workplace outbreaks.”

With most local authority areas having moved to level two earlier this week, there is no longer a legal obligation to allow employees to work from home. It has led to calls to the charity from workers feeling anxious and insecure about returning to work.

The charity says they have dealt with a number of cases where the concerns of workers were not respected and they were forced to work carrying out non-essential work in non-essential workplaces.

“In the absence of adequate enforcement how can we sure employers have suitable and sufficient risk assessments in place,” added Mr Tasker.

They point out that the HSE has suffered over 40% cuts since the 2010 Westminster coalition government came to power and local authority enforcement has been decimated by restrictions on business that are subjected to health and safety visits.

Read more: Covid Scotland: Pandemic set to open floodgates for damages claims, says legal expert

Mr Tasker added: “In workplaces where trade unions are not recognised, or worse those workplaces, where there is an anti trade union culture, many workers we have supported feel unwilling to challenge employers who are being unreasonable, not following guidance or failing in their health and safety obligations, they lack any effective voice.”

The charity is proposing a charter for a safe return to workplaces to include:

• Continuing and repeated messages from the Scottish Government that working from home should continue to be the norm and employers should provide written reasons as to why this is no longer possible.

• All employers should carry out/review covid risk assessments prior to workplaces reopening, these should be carried out in consultation with their trade union or the whole workforce where there is no trade union recognition.

• These risk assessments and the consultation involved in their development should be subject to inspection by health and safety enforcement bodies.

• Employers should prioritise employees who have expressed a preference to return to work for personal reasons such as poor mental health or their own domestic circumstances

• Employers should carry out a return to work induction when workplaces begin to reopen

• Employers should provide access to counselling or employee support services.

• The Scottish Government should continue to encourage workers with ongoing covid concerns to contact their trade union or, where there is not one, Scottish Hazards or other organisation providing health and safety or employment advice.

In a statement, a HSE spokesperson said: “The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency covering all sectors of society, not just workplaces.

“Public and Environmental Health authorities are best placed to lead investigations into COVID-19 outbreaks, as they have the community infrastructure in place to manage the situation including using all the information gathered by Test and Protect (including community transmission).

“HSE will assist where appropriate, however we are responsible for assessing safety management of workplaces, not the sources of the infection and it is generally more appropriate for information to the public about outbreaks to be communicated by public health colleagues.

“Across the country we are working with local authorities (LA’s) to spot check businesses. Both LA’s and HSE provide advice and guidance and can take enforcement action when needed.

“Our spot checks and inspections support the cross-government work in helping employers and employees at work during the pandemic.

“All workplaces are in scope for spot checks which means businesses of any size, in any sector can receive an unannounced check from either HSE or the local authority, to check they are COVID-secure.”

A spokesperson for Public Health Scotland said: "As the national organisation for public health, we do not have a remit for the inspection of individual workplace premises. Health Protection Teams, within national NHS Boards lead on the investigation and management of outbreaks in their geographical areas."

Scottish Hazards has a freephone advice line. They can be contacted on 0800 0015 022.