Half of reports to health and safety regulator raise workplace social distancing concerns, analysis reveals

Experts warn firms that fail to make their premises Covid secure could face reputational damage and tribunal claims

Almost half of Covid whistleblower reports to the UK’s independent health and safety regulator have related to the failures of employers to implement social distancing rules, analysis of official figures has found.

Analysis by law firm GQ Littler revealed that of the 5,585 reports about coronavirus risks received by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) since March 2020, 48 per cent raised concerns about social distancing at work. Similarly, nearly one in 10 (8 per cent) complaints were about a lack of personal protective equipment.

A quarter (25 per cent) of the reports about social distancing measures were made in October and November, according to the firm’s analysis, suggesting that even several months into the pandemic employers were still struggling with the practicalities of making workplaces Covid secure.

Sophie Vanhegan, partner at GQ Littler, said that while the nature of some workplaces meant implementing measures like social distancing was “incredibly difficult”, it was employers’ duty to ensure workplace safety. Failing to take care of the health and safety of employees could breach employers’ express duties under health and safety legislation, as well as result in unfair health and safety dismissal claims and whistleblowing unfair dismissal claims, she warned.

“Aside from the public health considerations, the repercussions of non-compliance could include enormous reputational damage, particularly if a Covid outbreak happens in connection to an employer’s workplace and questions are then asked about the adequacy of the measures that employer had in place,” she said.

“Employers need to make sure that they not only have robust policies in place but that they are continuing to review these to ensure they are being followed.”

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Vanhegan added that complaints filed with the HSE could lead to investigations, enforcement notices and prosecutions. The HSE also has the ability to name and shame non-compliant businesses, creating another reputational risk.

GQ Littler said if an employee suffers detriment as a result of raising concerns, then this could also result in a tribunal claim.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said that where it was necessary for workplaces to be open employers had to put in extra effort to make sure they were safe.

“It's really important that employers make every effort to facilitate home working wherever possible to help keep their workers safe,” she said. “They should only expect attendance if it's essential for particular roles and even then they should consider split shifts to minimise human contact as much as possible.

"Many workers who are attending their workplace don't feel safe there. Where it's necessary for workplaces to be open, employers need to double down on their efforts to make them Covid secure.”

Suff added that employers also needed to be consulting with workers more about their queries and concerns, and to have better lines of communication with their facilities teams.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady agreed, adding that the increased risks posed by new fast-spreading strains of the virus meant it had never been more important for employers to redo Covid-19 risk assessments.

“Employers must consult staff well ahead of any requests to return and they must make sure they have adapted workplaces to meet any new safety requirements that may be needed,” she said.

Recent research chimes with the findings, with the majority of UK workers (71 per cent) reporting that they do not feel safe working on their employer’s premises. The poll found that just 45 per cent of workplaces had safety protocols in place, such as social distancing and mandatory mask wearing, despite the majority of respondents (51 per cent) citing such measures as fundamental to making them feel safe at work.

The HSE has said it would carry out spot checks to check that businesses were Covid secure, while it continues to have its pre-pandemic powers to take enforcement action against both businesses and senior managers and directors for breaches.