Return to work could worsen health and safety inequality, study suggests

Research finds low earners are twice as likely to be physically injured or become ill at work, as think tank calls for stronger legislation around employers’ duty of care

A think tank has called on the government to make injury prevention a public health priority as research shows lower-earning workers could be most at risk of injuries as they return to the workplace.

A report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) – Better than cure: Injury prevention policy – found that lower-earning workers were twice as likely to be physically injured or become ill at work as higher earners. It said this made the need to protect staff as they returned to the workplace a “matter of fairness”.

It said individuals in the top 10 per cent of hourly earners had a physical injury and illness rate of just 2.1 per cent, compared to 4.9 per cent among the bottom 10 per cent of earners.

Criticising current injury prevention legislation as “piecemeal, disjointed and underfunded”, the IPPR called on the government to take action to make workplaces Covid secure. It called for the government to increase and expand statutory sick pay to cover individuals isolating; bolster whistleblower policies to ensure employees felt safe to raise concerns; and make it a requirement for businesses with 50 or more employees to publish their Covid risk assessment document, rather than just the results of the assessment, as is currently required.

The think tank also called for a national strategy for injury prevention to be developed by the government, employers and unions. Lesley Rankin, IPPR researcher and co-author of the report, said: “A national strategy covering everywhere people work and live is needed, to coordinate efforts to reduce injury and illness and address the unequal impact on lower earners.”

Henry Parkes, IPPR senior economist and co-author, added that cuts to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities were hampering officials’ ability to carry out vital workplace inspections during the crisis.

The report said cuts of 53 per cent to the HSE’s budget since 2009/10 and a drop of 33 per cent in staffing levels had resulted in 73 per cent less local authority health and safety workplace visits in England, Scotland and Wales between 2009 and 2018. Meanwhile, proactive visits fell by 93 per cent.

“The HSE is at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to make workplaces Covid secure as the lockdown eases, but it is now operating with far fewer staff than it had in 2008. This crisis has shown us just how important having strong health and safety enforcement and promotion is for our protection and wellbeing in the workplace,” said Parkes. 

Commenting on the findings, Liz Beck, founder and chief executive of Aspiring HR, said the protection of lower-earning workers was a systemic issue: “I’m not convinced the checks and balances or reporting mechanisms currently go far enough.

“While health and safety legislation provides for what is expected, and risk assessments exist to consider the dangers, they are often a paper trail exercise and can, at times, lack the genuine commitment to ensure safety and protection.”

Beck added that directors and leadership teams needed clearer responsibilities around health and safety, including the use of “health and safety assessment data in regular board meetings so corrective actions and education can be incorporated into the strategy and culture”.

Steve Carpenter, an independent HR consultant, welcomed the calls, saying the law only set a “minimum standard” for the protection of workers by employers.

“A national strategy to protect the health and safety of all employees is needed to enable employers to successfully implement a support framework and provide the necessary training to managers and employees, to help reduce injury and illness and address the unequal impact on lower earners,” he said.