The number of people who have died after contracting covid-19 at work is being “massively under-reported” by employers, according to a new report that suggests the current system for recording workplace deaths and infections is “letting bad bosses off the hook”.
The report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) highlights a huge discrepancy between covid work-related deaths reported by employers and data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England.
Between April 2020 and April 2021 the ONS reported that 15,263 people of working age died from the novel coronavirus. But, according to reports filed by employers, just 387 or 2.5% of these deaths came from workers contracting the virus at work.
The TUC report shows that in key worker sectors with high numbers of deaths during the pandemic, such as food production and transport, only a small fraction of deaths have been reported as work-related by employers.
ONS figures show that between March 2020 and December 2020, 608 people working in the transport sector and 63 food production workers died. But according to data provided by employers between April 2020 and April 2021 just ten and three fatalities respectively were reported as work related.
A separate report from the ethical investments consultancy Pirc concluded covid-19 infections at food factories could be more than 30 times higher than reported, with the official numbers for cases reported “lacking credibility”.
The same reporting periods show discrepancies in other sectors. There were 305 deaths in the construction industry and 139 in the education sector. However, reports filed by employers show just four and nine fatalities respectively were considered work related.
The union body argues this alleged under-reporting has undermined health and safety regulation enforcement during the pandemic with employers less likely to face action from regulators for putting staff at risk.
“Employers have massively under-reported covid work-related deaths and infections. This has made it much harder for regulators to track where outbreaks are happening and allowed bad bosses to get away with flagrant labour rights abuses,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.
Under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) 2013, employers are required to log all work-related deaths, illnesses, and injuries for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
The current reporting system allows employers to decide whether a covid-19 diagnosis is the result of occupational exposure or was contracted outside the workplace.
The TUC says this loophole has allowed employers to under-report the true scale of covid work-related deaths and infections to the HSE, despite this information being vital to containing the spread of the virus.
It’s staggering that not a single employer has been prosecuted for putting workers at risk of contracting covid-19
A lack of accurate information has prevented the HSE from carrying out potentially urgent inspections and ensuring employers take the necessary action to keep workers and the public safe, says the report.
The TUC’s analysis shows, between March 2020 and April 2021, the HSE inspected just one in 218 workplaces and no prosecutions have been brought by the government agency.
The union body says this “crisis of regulation and enforcement” has allowed bad bosses to get away with flagrant labour rights abuses, adding that the pandemic has highlighted Britain’s enforcement system’s long-standing deficiencies.
As well as calling for improvements in the way work-related delated deaths and infections are reported, the union body says the UK government must reverse a decade of cuts to the HSE, which has left the country “under-prepared and vulnerable” to the pandemic.
The last decade has seen real-term cuts of 50% to the HSE budget, on top of local authority budgets being slashed. There were 27% fewer HSE inspections carried out in 2019 than 2011, amounting to a fall of over 5,700 a year.
The union body’s report suggests trade unions be able to register RIDDOR reports triggering an HSE investigation. In addition, the TUC recommends the HSE waive the ten-day statutory notification period allowing employers to make backdated reports.
“Everybody deserves to be safe at work. But this pandemic has exposed a crisis in health and safety regulation and enforcement,” said O’Grady. “It’s staggering that not a single employer has been prosecuted for putting workers at risk of contracting covid-19.”
O’Grady called on the government to fix deficiencies in how workplace deaths, illnesses and injuries are reported as the current system “is letting bosses off the hook”.
She added that ministers must fund enforcement bodies properly so they can “recruit and train qualified workplace inspectors, inspect more workplaces, and prosecute companies who don’t keep their workers safe”.
The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recently found there currently to be insufficient evidence to prescribe covid-19 as an occupational disease, however, the body stated that “the evidence of a doubling of risk in several occupations indicates a pathway to potential prescription”.
If the virus is prescribed in certain occupations, workers who have experienced so-called “long covid” may be eligible to claim for Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit, or families may make posthumous claims relating to fatalities.
The TUC report says this prospect makes it even more important that data on covid infections in the workplace is accurate to support potential future claimants.