Half of key workers have blown whistle on unsafe practices during Covid, poll finds

Top concerns include inability to social distance, lack of PPE and vulnerable staff being forced back to a place of work

Just under half (46 per cent) of key workers have blown the whistle on their employer for engaging in dangerous workplace practices during the coronavirus pandemic, a study has found. 

The research by employment law specialist Slater and Gordon surveyed 1,000 key workers in August, including nurses, doctors, teachers, service workers and transport staff. It found many had been forced to highlight issues that could put colleagues, customers and patients at risk from Covid-19. 

The most common concern among those surveyed was an inability to social distance, cited by more than half (55 per cent). More than two-fifths (44 per cent) cited a lack of or limited PPE, and a quarter (25 per cent) said they were most concerned about employers forcing vulnerable people back to the workplace. 

Additionally, 15 per cent said their workplace had not upheld the government’s required health and safety standards during the pandemic. 

Jonny Gifford, senior adviser at the CIPD, described the results as “stark”, adding that the “legacy of Covid-19 must not include a race to the bottom in employment practices and corporate responsibility”.

“This report points to a worrying number of key workers perceiving malpractice in their organisations. So while the default position must be enabling, not punitive, organisations must be held to account for practices that put the public at undue risk or erode important employment rights,” he said. 

The research indicated a lack of trust among workers that their employer would act fairly and ethically. One in five (21 per cent) said they suspected their employer of using the pandemic as a cover to pursue unethical workplace practices. One in eight (12 per cent) said they had seen Covid being used as an excuse to unfairly dismiss people, and 14 per cent reported staff being refused furlough despite being vulnerable or living with shielding family members. 

One in five (21 per cent) suspected their company of breaking the law, and 17 per cent anticipated that particular staff would face discrimination or lose jobs unfairly. One in 10 (11 per cent) said they felt frustrated with their employer and two in five (38 per cent) said they felt disappointed. 

Gifford added: “All employers will need to work through the challenges of the pandemic and must be supported to do this in good faith, but this must not be a cover for flagrant avoidance of their responsibilities. Genuine whistleblowers need protection as always; this must not change because of the pandemic.”

Peter Daly, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said businesses failing to observe their legal duty of care to staff were “allowing the virus to spread”. He added that the research highlighted employers' failure “to think about staff and their loved ones”. 

“It is always on employers to ensure a safe work environment, but history shows us that some won’t take steps without prompting from staff. One of the aims of having statutory whistleblower protection is for staff to raise these concerns with protection from any resulting retribution they may face from employers,” said Daly. He added that the pandemic had led to “greater employee empowerment”, which should be beneficial in a post-Covid world. 

Beyond the immediate crisis, just under half (45 per cent) of those surveyed said they had seen or experienced health and safety breaches during the course of their careers. This included verbal mistreatment (25 per cent), unsafe practices (24 per cent), discrimination (18 per cent), workplace accidents (17 per cent) and sexual harassment (13 per cent).

Separate research conducted by the CIPD this summer found one in 10 (12 per cent) workers did not trust their employer to provide a safe environment when they returned to the workplace, and a quarter (21 per cent) of those already attending their normal workplace were not satisfied with the health and safety measures put in place by their employer during the pandemic.

Additionally, only half (55 per cent) of workers agreed that their employer had given adequate information about changes regarding a return to the workplace, and a quarter (26 per cent) who were going into work already said their employer was putting pressure on them to do so.