DEMANDS for a radical shake-up of health and safety enforcement has come as fears emerged that hundreds of workplace Covid cases and deaths in Scotland have gone unreported.
It comes amidst concerns over a failure to properly scrutinise working conditions within Scotland’s beleaguered Covid-battered social care system which is fuelling a growing staffing crisis.
As of September 18, just 24 of the 10,991 deaths in Scotland where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate had been reported to the Health and Safety Executive since the start of the pandemic. There have been just three since June.
It has also emerged that just half of one per cent (3212), of the over 568,000 positive Covid cases there have been in Scotland have been reported to the HSE under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR), which puts duties on employers, the self-employed and people in control of work premises to report serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences.
Alarm about the level of enforcement has been raised as official figures for April show that a third of the 10,000 Covid deaths occurred in care homes.
Some £2m death in service payments have already been paid by the Scottish Government to the families of 29 who died in the front line of the health and social care sector alone. In August the Scottish Government said there were 31 front line social care staff and 21 NHS staff who died from Covid.
Janice Graham, 58, was the first Scots NHS worker to die from coronavirus. The district nurse lost her life at Inverclyde Royal Hospital on April 6, 2020.
It comes as it emerged the Health and Safety Executive has slashed the number of inspectors by a third while its funding has been cut by 50% in ten years. The Herald can reveal that convictions in Scotland have also been cut by half over the five years even before the pandemic.
While Crown Office data as of April reveals that at least 3,400 Scottish care home residents died from Covid – the RIDDOR regulations do not not require the reporting of their deaths.
RIDDOR plays an important role in triggering investigations into occupational safety, ensuring employers follow protocols, and helping safety regulators direct support and enforcement powers.
Campaigners are now seeking a shake up of the health and safety system and an injection of enforcers as new concerns about welfare issues of social care workers have emerged in a new analysis involving discussions with staff during the Covid crisis.
The respected Scots think tank Common Weal has raised fundamental concerns that Scotland has not yet fully learned the lessons of the pandemic and that action is required to have proper safeguards within Scotland’s care homes.
They say that while the problem with access to PPE is less acute than it was during the height of the pandemic, it remains an “ongoing issue”. Despite the increased recognition of aerosol transmission of Covid, they say the battle has not been won for FFP3 grade masks for social care workers carrying out close personal support.
They also raise concerns of continued issues with overcrowded homes, poor waste recycling and poor ventilation.
The Scottish Government has made it clear to employers that specific Covid-19 risk assessments must be carried out and acted upon.
But the Common Weal says they are “acutely aware” that during the pandemic there have been many instances of failures to carry out risk assessments, to consult with the workforce and to put into place the necessary controls.
According to figures seen by the Herald, the HSE had its funding cut by 50% before the pandemic over ten years from £239.4m in 2009/10 to just £121.3m in 2019/20.
And the number of inspectors has gone the same way slashed by over a third from 1,617 to 1,059.
Over the ten years, the number of enforcement notices issued by HSE fell by 36%, with the most serious, prohibition notices, down by 50% to 7,075 in 2019/20.
Convictions of offences fell by 39% to 467 in 2019/20. In Scotland it dropped by half in five years from 34 to just 17 in 2019/20 At the start of the pandemic, the UK government allocated an additional £14m to the HSE to allow it to carry out spot checks.
But in the first full year of the pandemic, there had been just three prohibition notices issues for Covid-related criminal safety breaches, affecting two workplaces, all issued in September 2020.
In the early stages of the pandemic, over the six months from April 1 to September 30, the number of HSE inspections and visits to workplaces dropped by 40% when many thought they should have gone up.
In the six months from April 1 to September 30, some 15,622 ‘spot check calls’ were made, supplemented with 4,938 ‘spot check visits’. The Covid enforcement activity generated 78 notices and no prosecutions.
The HSE also conducted 406 non-Covid inspections.
Kathleen Jenkins, a member of the Common Weal Care Reform working group and secretary of Scottish Hazards, the health and safety campaign network is concerned over what she described as massive under-reporting of occupational Covid deaths and cases to the HSE.
“There is considerable evidence that enforcement bodies have not done enough,” she said.
“The pandemic did not create an occupational health and safety crisis, it brought to the surface serious problems in our approach to health and safety enforcement.
“Of course, the pandemic is the worst in modern times but our health and safety regulator, the HSE, has failed to take a leading role in reducing the risks.
She said there was a danger of their work being demoted to a supporting role to Public Health Scotland, a public health regulator and “clearly not in a place to enforce health and safety regulations”.
“Yes, it is a public health crisis but it is also an occupational health crisis.”
Ms Jenkins, who is the lead author of a new Common Weal analysis said that many of the health and safety lapses during the pandemic will be the result of underfunding, poor staffing levels, poor training and knowledge of health and safety, an unwillingness to listen to social care workers, and a heavily non-unionised and disparate workforce.
Her analysis calls for health and safety enforcement saying: “Funding and support needs to be given to health and safety enforcers to enable this to happen.
“Health and safety should be an integral part of education, training, support and supervision which must be core elements of all parts of the Scottish social care system.”
Since March 2020 according to the National Records of Scotland (NRS), just 771 fatalities out the near 11,000 Covid fatalities had occupations state on their death certificates.
The occupational category that has recorded the highest number of deaths from Covid at 145 was that of ‘Process, Plant and Machine Operatives’ which includes people working as taxi and bus drivers, food and drink processing workers and maintenance and repair roles.
Some 117 occurred among people employed in ‘Elementary Occupations’ – including construction, hospitality and supermarket staff as well as those in cleaning roles and security jobs.
And 121 deaths occurred involving people working in ‘Skilled Trades Occupations’ – such as carpenters, plumbers, joiners and electricians.
Some 101 deaths occurred among those working in ‘Caring Personal Service Occupations’, as well as 70 deaths among social care workers and 33 among health workers.
Ms Jenkins said: “Carrying out suitable and sufficient risk assessments and consulting with workers on health and safety matters lie at the very heart of our health and safety system and employers have been allowed to break the law in respect of both.
“We believe there has been massive under reporting of occupational Covid, cases where the transmision route has been through the workplace and the HSE response has been to engage a private sector debt collecting agency to carry out workplace spot checks.
“As far as we can see this involved checking Covid signage and hygiene measures. They do not speak to trade union health and safety reps, they do not look at consultation arrangements in the work place and they do not check that Covid risk assessments are suitable or sufficient.
“This is not health and safety enforcement.”
Guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states: “For an incident to be reportable as a dangerous occurrence, the incident must have resulted (or could have resulted) in the release or escape of coronavirus…
“The assessment does not require any complex analysis, measurement or test, but rather for a reasonable judgement to be made as to whether the circumstances gave rise to a real risk or had the potential to cause significant harm.”
An HSE spokesman said: “We are committed to getting the most accurate picture possible and working with employers, trade and other representative bodies to ensure that RIDDORs incidents are reported. We’ve always recognised that figures reported elsewhere are higher than those we have on record, this is because reporting requirements are different.
“During the pandemic we’ve bolstered our guidance for employers on reporting and communicated through various channels what is required to be reported. No changes have taken place to the reporting process itself, or the clear legal duties on employers.
“RIDDOR is the first step in HSE enquiries being made into a case and direct evidence to suggest occupational exposure will be required, which is understandably challenging given the prevalence of the coronavirus there has been in the general population.
“Where a worker has been diagnosed as having Covid-19, and there is reasonable evidence to suggest that it was caused by occupational exposure, employers have a legal duty to report the case to the relevant enforcing authority under RIDDOR.”