Quarter of employers not implementing social distancing in the workplace, research finds

Experts warn lack of safety measures is a ‘big worry’ for staff expecting to return to work, with many businesses also failing to conduct risk assessments

A quarter of businesses are still not implementing social distancing in the workplace, a survey has found, as experts urge employers to take all reasonable steps to protect those returning.

In a poll of 2,100 workplace safety representatives, conducted by the TUC, 25 per cent said their workplace did not always implement physical distancing between colleagues, either through social distancing or with physical barriers.

Similarly, a fifth (22 per cent) said their workplace did not always implement appropriate physical distancing between employees and customers, patients or clients, while more than a third (35 per cent) said adequate personal protective equipment wasn’t always provided.

The research also found one in 10 (9 per cent) safety reps said their employer had not conducted a risk assessment in their workplace in the last two years, while another 17 per cent said they were not aware of a risk assessment in their workplace in the last two years despite a legal requirement to consult them. 

Of those who said their employers had carried out a risk assessment, almost a quarter (23 per cent) reported they felt it was inadequate.

This is despite more than three-quarters of respondents (83 per cent) reporting that employees had tested positive for Covid in their workplace and more than half (57 per cent) said their workplaces had seen a significant number of cases.

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In addition, two-thirds (65 per cent) of safety representatives said they were dealing with an increased number of mental health concerns since the pandemic began, with three-quarters (76 per cent) citing stress as a workplace hazard.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said too many workplaces were not Covid secure and this was a “big worry” for people expecting to return to work. "We must have robust health and safety in place to reduce the risk of infections rising again when workplaces reopen,” she said.

“Everyone has the right to be safe at work. The government must take safety representatives’ warnings seriously. Ministers must tell the health and safety executive to crack down on bad bosses who risk workers’ safety. And they must provide funding to get more inspectors into workplaces to make sure employers follow the rules.”

Emma Persand, director of health consultancy Lemur Health, said the pandemic had changed the way employers needed to approach health and safety at work. “Everyone is at risk of Covid-19 infection, and conditions such as type of occupation increases exposure to the virus.”

Persand added that it was established people with certain characteristics are more likely to have worse outcomes after contracting the virus, and that employers have a duty of care to identify those who are high risk and take action to reduce the level of harm.

“Before the pandemic, health and pregnancy status risk assessments were available, but managers were not trained or expected to have cultural conversations in the workplace in regard to health and safety,” said Persand. 

“Managers, employees and occupational health and safety representatives need to work together for a more holistic approach to managing risk and keeping everyone safe at work.”

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said it was crucial organisations carried out their legal obligation to conduct risk assessments and to take all reasonable steps to protect those returning to the workplace. These include social distancing measures, staggering shift time where appropriate and providing additional handwashing facilities.

"Employers should only be asking people to return to the workplace if it’s essential; for example, to do the job or for the wellbeing of the worker, if it’s safe to do so and if it is mutually agreed,” Willmott added. ”People who can and want to continue to work from home should be allowed to continue to do so wherever possible."

Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, said protecting health and wellbeing and preventing the spread of the virus needed to be central to employers’ responses to Covid. 

She added: “They must show leadership by protecting workers, clients, consumers and communities from the virus, using workplaces to promote safe practice, prevention messages and control strategies. At the same time, they must ensure they don’t lose sight of other health, safety and wellbeing risks, which haven’t gone away during the pandemic.”