Thousands of workers raising workplace safety concerns, MPs reveal

Business secretary questioned on ‘giant loophole’ in government coronavirus safety guidance that allows employers to circumvent requirement to keep staff two metres apart

A parliamentary committee has received thousands of emails from workers concerned about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), hygiene facilities and social distancing measures at their places of work.

Alan Brown, an SNP MP and member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) parliamentary committee, said the committee had received over 2,000 emails from people concerned about workplace safety.

Current government guidance states that where it is not possible for staff to remain two metres apart, they should simply “work side by side, or facing away from each other, rather than face to face if possible”. Brown said this guidance was a “giant loophole”, enabling companies to ignore social distancing obligations.

“As we go forward, more businesses are going to reopen, so what measures will the government require these businesses put in place to protect workers?” Brown asked.

The revelation was made during an evidence session where Brown and other MPs questioned secretary of state for business Alok Sharma (pictured) on the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Sharma, who attended the session via video call, told the committee that worker safety was “absolutely paramount” and offered to look into any complaints.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

But he said he believed, based on conversations with employers, that on the whole businesses were acting responsibly and following the safety guidance set out by the government.

“We want workers to be safe in the workplace. On the other hand, I do want where it is possible for businesses to continue to work and trade to keep our economy moving,” said Sharma. He added employers and employees needed to have a “sensible discussion” about how guidance should be implemented and advised workers concerned about safety to contact the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Access to PPE, particularly in healthcare settings, has been a key issue throughout the coronavirus crisis, with Public Health England considering advising care homes to re-use PPE supplies as a last resort this weekend.

Speaking to People Management, Dr David Poots, senior occupational health physician at health and wellbeing provider BHSF, said there was “no single off-the-peg solution” for each workplace to maintain safe working conditions during the outbreak. 

“Of course we still need people on factory floors, in workshops, maintaining water and power supplies, delivering food and of course providing healthcare,” he said. He suggested practices such as driving in separate vehicles and keeping workbenches further apart.

“Above all else, I want to emphasise the importance of good, clear and frequent communication,” he said. “I can’t overstate how much it helps if the workforce feels supported, knows what is being done to protect them and understands why.”

Angela Brumpton, partner at Gunnercooke, confirmed current guidance did allow employers to deploy alternative measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus where it was impossible for employees to maintain a distance of two metres. But, she said: “This needs to be weighed against the requirement that businesses must first consider whether such activities should be carried out at all.”

She added that if a complaint about an employer was made to HSE, the organisation would need to be able to justify its approach.