Workplace Report December 2020


Covid-secure or Covid-safe?

As the UK emerged from the first lockdown, central government policy directed that workplaces should be made “Covid-secure” through the use of risk assessments. But recent workplace outbreaks and a close look at those assessments have called into question whether they are working

As the country came out of its first lockdown, there was an assumption on the part of government that if a workplace was “Covid-secure” it could continue to operate as normal. Subsequent restrictions then focused on “socialising” rather than working. Central to the Covid-secure policy is that every workplace with more than five employees should produce and sign off on a Covid-19 risk assessment.

However, in the midst of this second lockdown, schools and universities, factories, warehouses, schools, farms and some shops and hotels are all still open, and all have been sites of workplace clusters of coronavirus transmission. It is becoming clear that, while a proper risk assessment is a key component to ensuring health and safety at work during the pandemic, they are not enough on their own.

Lack of transparency

The government guidelines on carrying out a Covid-19 risk assessment say that employers should share the risk assessment with their workforce and, if possible, consider publishing the results on their website. All employers with over 50 workers are expected to do so.

However, the TUC’s Covid Secure Check project, which collates the risk assessments published by employers on their websites, has found that the publication of such documents is inconsistent and their quality varies considerably.

So far, there are around 360 workplaces in the database, although not all employers have published the actual risk assessment document, preferring instead just to show their Covid Secure Notice. This is a single-page checklist indicating what measures have been taken. Others are keeping their assessments private or only available on request.

By mid-September just two-fifths (38%) of workers surveyed by the TUC knew their employers had carried out Covid-secure risk assessments, despite them being a legal requirement.

You can help by checking if your own employer/workplace is in the database, and, if not, and there is an available risk assessment, entering it into the database at

Variation in quality

The TUC found a huge variation in the quality of risk assessments. Many employers have used generic risk assessment templates supplied by third parties, even though an off the shelf approach is not necessarily the best way to ensure the process takes into account the specifics of the particular site. Among employers who produced their own assessments, not all cover the elements expected in good risk assessments.

What’s in a good Covid risk assessment?

Risk assessments are working documents that should be produced in clear English in consultation with a trade union rep or another workers’ representative. They should be regularly reviewed as risks change, and all staff should be briefed on their contents. They should also contain a clear accountability process, with a named person who is responsible for ensuring that measures are complied with. There should also be a procedure for reporting issues.

A good workplace risk assessment:

• clearly and practically tracks the government’s Covid-19 protocols are in specific reference to the demands and operations of the workplace in question;

• is carried out in collaboration with employees;

• contains a clear sense of escalation and responsibility protocols;

• makes a holistic consideration of risks posed by Covid-19;

• states awareness of second order implications; and

• is clear and understandable.

Special provisions for vulnerable workers

Different unions also have specific advice for how risk assessments can address the specific risks to vulnerable workers, including Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers

Lecturers’ union the UCU advises that equality impact assessments be carried out as a prerequisite of Covid risk assessments and any changes to working practices that may be implemented as a result.

Public services union UNISON has published its guidance at

WH Smith

Retailer WH Smith is an example of an employer that covered most elements in its detailed global risk assessment. The main risk assessment – which can be found at – is accompanied by private documents covering risk at local store level.

What it includes

• The document makes it clear that assessing risk is an ongoing process, and insists the guidance will be reviewed regularly.

• It is written in clear English and includes pictures and diagrams that make it easy to understand.

• It is comprehensive and considers all groups affected, including staff, vulnerable groups, customers, visitors and contractors.

• The measures to maintain two metre physical distancing and enhanced hygiene are extensive, detailed and specific to different areas of the workplace.

• Provision of PPE appears to be voluntary, with best advice physical distancing. Colleagues can wear masks and protective visors at their discretion.

• It is participatory: employees working in trading stores have been asked for feedback when control measures have been introduced, and this has been incorporated into the policy.

• It contains responsibility and accountability measures: the store duty manager is responsible.

• It offers training on the control measures.

• It states that: “WH Smith will offer support to colleagues who are directly or indirectly affected by Coronavirus or has a member of their household so affected.”

Where it could improve

The document could include:

• an assessment of whether any new risks are created by the control measures;

• mention of off-site risks, such as how staff travel to and from work; and

• the procedure if a staff member is taken ill.

Frasers Group

Frasers Group, owner of Sports Direct, Debenhams and other outlets has an example of a less good risk assessment. It can be seen at

Instead of the traditional format, the company published a glossy brochure covering its Covid control measures. It says the document has been prepared with the help of an independent “Health & Safety consultant”.

What it includes

• It offers a general list of social distancing measures for group distribution workplaces and stores and how these will be communicated.

• The measures include revised schedules, temperature checks, plexiglass screens etc, reduced capacity in shared toilet facilities, reduced capacity in canteens, smoking areas, staggered breaks and start/finish times, one-way travel, and working from home where possible.

• The communication includes training, monitoring, use of the public address system.

• Additional measures include PPE, extra cleaning and sanitisation products, reviewing established processes such as first aid, cleaning, induction and recruitment, shielding for high risk health conditions and no-contact searches.

• In the store section, the list of measures includes a checklist of managers, emphasis on deliveries, staggered breaks and start times, revised schedules and a package of social distancing and hygiene measures relevant to the store layout. It also says the stores will have area manager and health and safety team spot checks.

Where it falls short

The list format used by Frasers Group means that, as a risk assessment document, it falls short in a number of areas. For example, it does not:

• state which groups of people are “at risk”, and beyond a mention of shielding does not address the specific concerns of vulnerable groups;

• state whether staff and other stakeholders have been consulted on the measures and their feedback taken into account;

• offer any details of what the distancing and hygiene measures will look like;

• give any indication of who will be responsible on site for the control measures, beyond mention of spot checks;

• state what procedures to follow if someone is taken ill;

• mention what the travel and parking guidelines in place are; or

• take into account any secondary risks that are caused by changes to operations.

Workers feeling unsafe

Perhaps as a result of these kinds of inconsistencies, research published last month by the Resolution Foundation think tank showed that despite 90% of employers being signed off as Covid-secure, more than one-in-three (35%) workers had an active concern about the transmission of Covid in their workplaces.

The findings came from an online YouGov survey of 6,061 adults across the UK. It found that an even higher number of workers, nearly half (47%), rate the risk of Covid transmission in their workplaces as fairly or very high. Low-paid workers were most likely to be worried, but least likely to raise concerns or see their complaints resolved (see page 14).

Unions call for better safety in schools and universities

Despite UNISON, Unite and teacher’s union the NEU calling for schools and colleges to be included in the government’s English lockdown, this did not happen, and cases have risen. Kevin Courtney, NEU joint general secretary, commented: “Clearly the government needs to find ways to break transmission networks in schools and colleges. It must prioritise schools for access to rapid turnaround tests like those being trialled in Liverpool, and should be making plans for secondary schools and sixth form colleges to move to a rota operation. Much more needs to be done to make schools and colleges safe.”

Higher education union the UCU has written to vice-chancellors of universities in England calling on them to move all learning online immediately. Its move follows updated government guidance for England around the second lockdown that said universities should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible and – after repeated calls from UCU and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – for a move away from in-person teaching (see page 13).

Increasing cases

Workers’ fears appear well-founded. According to the TUC, the incidents of workplace infections have risen by an alarming 125% during the recent period.

The Hazards Campaign has said that the responsibility lies with workplaces that have failed to use control measures such as physical distancing, increased cleaning and control of aerosol transmission by increased and improved ventilation, with fewer workers in confined indoor spaces.

They also mention the increased risk for workers who have no safe means of travel to work or are unable to self-isolate or take sick leave when unwell because they do not get full pay, having to rely instead on Statutory Sick Pay, or nothing at all if self-employed.

The rapid spread of workplace infections has not been helped by the ineffective and privatised Track and Trace system.

Which sectors are most affected?

As with the first wave of the pandemic, the highest incidence of coronavirus infections has been among health and social care staff.

Data covering the four weeks to 12th November from Public Health England’s “community surveillance”, which covers confirmed or suspected reported outbreaks (for example more than two cases), show that:

• 1,316 incidents were from care homes;

• 281 incidents were from hospitals;

• 1,020 incidents were from educational settings where 146 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2;

• 27 incidents were from prisons;

• 1,147 incidents were from other workplace settings; and

• 98 incidents were from food outlet/restaurant settings;

Schools, universities and meat processing factories appear to be some of the most at-risk workplaces.

• Two thirds of teachers in England say they know colleagues who have displayed symptoms of Covid in their school or college, according to a survey by the teachers’ Nasuwt union. Almost six in 10 (59%) of those polled also reported that classes, year groups or “bubbles” had been sent home because of suspected or positive cases.

• The UCU said it has collated a running total of over 35,000 cases of Covid on campuses across the UK.

• In late October, Covid-19 clusters involving hundreds of workers were reported in the East of England linked to meat processing factory, Cranswick Country Foods. The outbreak centred on the factory’s butchery, where more than half the workers tested positive. This is despite the fact that the specific risks in the sector became clear many months ago and the means to control risks were widely available by May.

Workplace incidences of Covid have also led to many deaths. The Office for National Statistics has stopped publishing data on Covid deaths by occupation, but back in June it showed that so-called “elementary occupations” had the highest rates of deaths involving Covid. These include carers, factory workers, cleaners, warehouse staff, security guards and construction workers, while deaths were also high for taxi, cab, bus, and coach drivers.

What to do if you don’t feel safe

You can register a Covid concern using the link on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website, or telephone 0300 790 6787. Lines are open Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 5pm.

Need for ongoing negotiation

As is clear from the increase in workplace-related Covid cases, some employers have treated risk assessments as little more than a paper exercise. This shows the need for ongoing negotiations to ensure that safety measures are being implemented properly. While most of this happens on the ground with health and safety reps, national union officials are also increasingly vocal.

CWU officials recently pushed back against a Royal Mail decision to break its own risk assessment by returning to van sharing in the run up to Christmas. The union’s deputy general secretary postal, Terry Pullinger, accused Royal Mail management of basing workplace health and safety on economic worries in the build-up to Christmas, saying that the decision had “operational overtones”.

Further, at a time when Royal Mail takes on 30,000 extra casual workers, the CWU has pushed to make mask wearing mandatory in all its workplaces. National health and safety officer Dave Joyce explained that the CWU has “formally put this forward to Royal Mail Group in order to further improve safety, and reduce workplace transmissions and infections – as well as giving a huge reassurance to the workforce at this tough time”.

Lack of enforcement

One of the major reasons given for workplace outbreaks is the lack of official enforcement of the Covid-secure measures.

A Nasuwt spokesperson commented that, in the case of schools, “Fewer than one in five education settings have been contacted by telephone by the HSE [Health and Safety Executive] and fewer than 300 of 23,000 schools have been visited by the HSE since the start of September. This is simply not good enough and will do little to inspire public confidence or to give reassurance to those who are working in schools at this critically important time.”

Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University also criticised the UK’s inspection and prevention response at work. “Investigations of Covid-19 workplace clusters in Britain are led by public health staff at a national and local level and not by the HSE, although joint inspections and investigations may occur. This could mean some investigators lack the powers and possibly the knowledge and skills to enforce measures to stop the spread of the virus,” he said. While the HSE has powers to close a workplace hazardous to health, and local authority inspectors can shut workplaces on environmental health grounds, directors of public health do not have such powers.

Furthermore, the TUC has found that the HSE is appointing private outsourcing companies to carry out workplace spot checks, leading to worries that staff may be under-trained and inexperienced

In a move backed by trade unions, the Hazards Campaign is calling for government investment in a tougher regulatory system to check up on employers, with more inspections and control by the HSE and local authority enforcement.

Towards Covid-safe workplaces

The Hazards Campaign has produced a Covid safe workplace charter that calls on government to legislate for “roving safety reps”, increase funding and resources for enforcement, and provide sufficient financial support for all workers to be able to self-isolate or take sick leave without loss of earnings.

It states that all employers should draw up and implement a comprehensive covid-safe plan (CSP) –rooted in a Covid-19 risk assessment. The plan must be openly available (ideally on a website or, if not, in documents that are easily accessible by the public) in order to be transparent about what measures have been taken and to facilitate monitoring in order to ensure that these measures have been implemented, and thereby to inspire confidence among employees and the wider public.

Hazards Campaign, Hazards Campaign and Independent Sage call for no workers to return to workplaces unless Covid Safety Plans are in place and enforcement bodies have agreed them (

Independent SAGE, The COVID-19 Safe WorkplaceCharter and briefing document onending work lockdowns in GB (

UK government, What to include in your COVID-19 risk assessment (

ONS Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation (