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Tue July 27 2021

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HSE promises action on social distancing failures

6 Apr 20 The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has said that it could shut down sites that are not effectively implementing social distancing.

But it is not clear how it will know, since the HSE has suspended routine inspections, preferring to keep its inspectors safe.

The HSE said: “Firms that can safely stay open and support livelihoods should not be forced to close by misunderstandings about government guidance. But if it comes to the HSE’s attention that employers are not complying with the relevant Public Health England guidance (including enabling social distancing where it is practical to do so), HSE will consider a range of actions ranging from providing specific advice to employers through to issuing enforcement notices, including prohibition notices.”

On Friday the HSE joined with both the Confederation of British Industry (CBI, representing ‘bosses’) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC, representing ‘workers’) to issue what they described as an ‘unprecedented joint call’ for employers to ensure safe working conditions during the coronavirus outbreak.

The three organisations are presenting a united front on the need for companies that remain open to take practical steps to minimise the threat of workers being exposed to the virus wherever possible – including enabling social distancing.

The statement warns that if employers do not comply with the latest Public Health England guidance they face being hit with enforcement notices and potential closure.

The joint appeal also encourages workers to raise any concerns about working conditions first with their employer or trade union. And it notes that if concerns can’t be resolved locally, workers can approach the HSE or their local authority for help. 

CBI deputy director general Josh Hardie said: “Businesses are stepping up to the mark in these incredibly challenging times. Keeping staff safe must be their number one priority, as they also keep the wheels of daily life and the economy spinning.  

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“The vast majority of firms are doing the very best they can in protecting their staff where premises remain open. The layout of some workplaces can make this incredibly difficult, but all efforts must be made to follow social distancing guidelines wherever they can.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:  “We all want businesses to get through this crisis and keep people in their jobs. But this must not come at the cost of safe working conditions.  Employers and unions have a crucial role to play in stopping the spread of the virus, protecting our NHS and saving lives.  

“Many employers are doing the right thing. But no-one going into work should have to endanger their own health and put their families and the wider community at risk. Those companies who refuse to follow the rules must face the threat of closure.”

One union baron was not convinced though. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Workers in frontline roles and those who are continuing to go to work need to know that the HSE has got their backs more than ever at this time. The HSE must up its game and be shown to be actively enforcing the government and PHE’s guidelines. The apparent failure to do so risks the long-term credibility of the regulator.

“Workers will rightly ask if it is too dangerous for HSE inspectors to visit their workplaces, why on earth are they still being told to go to work?

“Since the coronavirus crisis began Unite has been at the forefront of ensuring that social distancing occurs in the workplace. In many cases it has forced employers to radically improve their procedures.”

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