Majority of UK employees feel unsafe in their workplace, study suggests

Experts warn of ‘crucial’ need for firms to prioritise flexibility and building safety for those unable to work remotely

The majority of UK workers do not feel safe working on their employer’s premises, a survey has suggested, with many still worried about the risk of Covid transmission.

A poll of employees – conducted by Honeywell and Wakefield in November last year, before the recent tightening of restrictions – found that nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of respondents did not feel completely safe in their workplace, with half (51 per cent) worried about contracting coronavirus by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces.

The research, which polled 500 UK workers who are usually based in large buildings with 500 or more people, also found that just 45 per cent of workplaces had safety protocols in place such as social distancing and mandatory mask wearing. This was despite the majority of respondents (51 per cent) citing such measures as fundamental to making them feel safe at work.

Workers were also unhappy about their future safety. Nearly two-thirds of those polled (62 per cent) believed their management was more likely to make short-term changes in response to coronavirus rather than making long-term investments in building systems needed to keep workers safe. Similarly, 43 per cent cited concerns that building management would not consistently enforce health and safety guidelines.

The findings have prompted renewed calls for businesses to urgently offer flexible working wherever possible and to put more effort into safety where employees are required to come into the office.

Under the latest lockdown rules, leaving home for work is only permitted “where it is unreasonable for you to do your job from home”; for example, in manufacturing or construction jobs. Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, emphasised the importance of employers making “every effort to facilitate home working wherever possible”.

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Employees should only be expected to attend the workplace if it is essential for particular roles, she said, and even then employers should consider taking precautions such as keeping shift teams separated to minimise contact as much as possible.

“Where it's necessary for workplaces to be open, employers need to double down on their efforts to make them Covid secure,” Suff said, adding that businesses needed to consult with workers about their queries and concerns and to have better lines of communication with their facility managers.

Responding to the findings, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said employers' immediate priority was to make sure those unable to work from home felt safe in their place of work. “Employers must redo Covid-19 risk assessments to take account of the higher risks with the new fast-spreading strains,” she said. “[They] should consult staff unions when making risk assessments and should publish their risk assessment so it can be seen by all staff, clients or customers.”

O’Grady added that while there was hope that the vaccination rollout would allow people to get back to their usual place of work, “it must not be a rushed return”.

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

Paul Holcroft, managing director at Croner, said it was imperative that companies followed the current guidance: “In these difficult times, this reminds employers it is crucial for staff to feel safe when coming into work and that them not doing so could lead to ongoing issues with employee relations.

“To this end, it is imperative that they continue to follow rules in making workplaces Covid secure, and explore home working where possible in line with current guidance.”