Under reporting of Covid illness and deaths at places of work
By Catherine Dunlop
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for collating figures for illness and death at work. In 2010 its budget was cut by half for each workplace it was responsible for. In 2020 its employees worked from home, and inspections were a tenth of what they should have been even in that reduced state, although it improved slightly as the year went on.
We have a situation where outbreaks of Covid in industrial plants are reported locally in the regional press, but not in the HSE figures.
An example, reported by Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times on 3 November 2020, was Cranswick Foods near Barnsley, who make food for Sainsbury’s. In April 2020 seven of their workers were hospitalised (out of an unknown number who were infected) of which three died. This was reported to HSE, who did not inspect the plant, until July after a second outbreak.
Employers have a legal duty to report certain workplace accidents and occupational diseases via RIDDOR reports, Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013.
The HSE website says that employers should only report a case of Covid if there is evidence the disease was caught at the place of work
“You should only make a report under RIDDOR when one of the following circumstances applies:
- a person at work (a worker) has been diagnosed as having COVID-19 attributed to an occupational exposure to coronavirus. This must be reported as a case of disease
- a worker dies as a result of occupational exposure to coronavirus. This must be reported as a work-related death due to exposure to a biological agent.”
Further information on this state of affairs is given not by a trade union or a political group, but a company set up to provide advice to institutional investors, again mentioned by Sarah O’Connor. This company is called Pensions & Investment Research Consultants Ltd (PIRC); they have written a report on the underreporting of Covid in the work place (http://www.pirc.co.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2020/09/PIRC_sector_food_processing.pdf) from which I quote below:
“Hidden deaths – why is there no public reporting of these cases?
“From a sample of 20 media reports we know that there have been at least 1461 COVID-19 cases in food manufacturing, and 6 fatalities. We believe the actual figure to be much higher.
This is in stark contrast with the data released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), showing that only 47 COVID- 19 cases had been reported in the sector up to 8 August. No fatalities had been reported.
The huge gap between the reported data and the actual cases is the product of a loop hole in the HSE’s “RIDDOR” guidance (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations), updated for COVID-19, where employers are told to:
“make a judgement, based on the information available, as to whether or not a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 is likely to have been caused by an occupational exposure.”
In other words, the ball is in the company’s court to determine if a COVID-19 case was contracted at work, and they will only need to report on these cases. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, very few companies are doing so – designating outbreaks instead as “cases in the community” that have somehow infiltrated the workplace. This shifts the responsibility onto the Government and individuals, and means we have no public records of workforce outbreaks that can be linked to a particular employer. It also reduces the likelihood of sanctions by the HSE. We are concerned that the current regime is resulting in a dramatic level of under-reporting.”
“Given the unprecedented impacts of the pandemic, localised instances of bad employment practice are likely to have occurred across most companies and sectors. But there are systematic risks occurring in food production where workforces, already experiencing vulnerabilities such as low pay, a lack of rights and limited access to union representation, are being exposed to additional risks and hardships. Repeat issues include:
• A reluctance to call in sick due to fear of loss of income • Threat of lost hours and jobs, both implicit and explicit • Requirement to work in large numbers where social distancing is impossible
• A lack of adequate PPE across both essential and non-essential work
• Expectations for workers to incorporate changed responsibilities in their job
• Poor consultation, with little or no involvement of unions
• A lack of corporate transparency over COVID-19 cases and fatalities.”
So, according to an investors advice group, absence of union representation is a bad thing for the employee and for the country at large.
A January 2021 update on the subject by PIRC (under the rubric ‘Blog’) states:
“The HSE acknowledges the problem, stating the RIDDOR ‘suffers from under-reporting. Not all employers report cases as required under the regulations. However, as there is no reliable estimate of the number of occupational Covid-19 cases, it is not possible to quantify the extent of under-reporting’.
It would be helpful then if there was more investor scrutiny of the number of Covid-19 cases in particular sectors. In the absence of accurate information on just how severe the coronavirus is in particular industries, – or individual factories – it is hard for investors to promote good practice. At the same time, where employers are subjecting their workforce to unnecessary risk, this too remains challenging to spot without accurate data. The need for a more comprehensive approach is increasingly clear.”
Why is this issue highlighted by an investors group? Why is it discussed in the Financial Times? Why isn’t it front page news in ….? Yes, where? in what newspaper? There is no newspaper or news outlet that could trumpet this disgrace to a wide public. It is in everybody’s interest that workers are not exploited, and that fact is getting clearer with every Covid death. Sites of infection are allowed to continue unchecked, policies that discourage workers from taking time off to look after themselves continue. Labour party MPs could make speeches in Parliament to expose this scandal, when will we hear them? When they do speak, as Andy McDonald did on 25th January (see Parliament Notes), who hears them? He at least posed the right question: “At no time in living memory has it been clearer that the safety and security of working people is inextricably linked with public health and the economy.”