DWP's response to the coronavirus outbreak Contents

11The Health and Safety Executive

The Health and Safety Executive and the coronavirus pandemic

217.The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is Britain’s independent regulator for workplace health and safety. Its mission is to prevent death, injury and ill-health in the workplace and its primary duties include: proposing health and safety regulation; ensuring compliance with health and safety regulation; and advising Ministers and other groups on health and safety matters. HSE is a non-departmental public body, and reports to the Minister of State for Employment in the Department for Work and Pensions, Mims Davies MP.

218.Many people are concerned about their safety at work during the coronavirus pandemic. By 3 April, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) had received over 1000 contacts from workers concerned about unsafe working.266 HSE itself has received over 6,000 concerns about social distancing and other Covid-19 risks.267

219.The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, of people whose work had been affected by the virus, 20% were concerned about their health and safety at work. The survey was based on findings from 21 May to 24 May; the percentage of people who said they were concerned had risen from 11% when the same question was asked between 14 May and 17 May. The most common concerns raised were about difficulties in following social distancing advice, difficulties in following hygiene advice, and there being limited or no protective equipment in place.268

220.Some occupations have seen significantly higher death rates from coronavirus than others. On 11 May, the ONS released provisional analysis of deaths involving the coronavirus up to and including 20 April 2020, by different occupational groups, among males and females aged 20 to 64 years in England and Wales. The rate of death in males was 9.9 deaths per 100,000, compared with 5.2 deaths per 100,000 females.

221.Compared with the rate among people of the same sex and age, men working in the “lowest skilled” occupations had the highest rate of death involving coronavirus. Male security guards had one of the highest rates by occupation, with 45.7 deaths per 100,000. Men and women working in social care, a group including care workers and home carers, also had significantly raised rates of death involving coronavirus, as did males working as taxi drivers and chauffeurs; bus and coach drivers; chefs; and sales and retail assistants.269

222.On 12 May, we heard from HSE Chair Martin Temple about the role HSE has played in the response to the pandemic. He told us that, among other things, HSE had:

HSE response to Covid-19 concerns

223.Members of the public and employees can submit concerns to HSE about unsatisfactory conditions or risk control measures in the workplace. Most concerns are raised by telephone or using the online form on HSE’s website. As shown in the table below, the majority of Covid-19 related concerns that HSE received were either relevant to a body other than HSE, or were straightforward and could be dealt with by the first point of contact in HSE.271

Concern type

Volume of concerns

Total concerns received by HSE about social distancing and other Covid-19 risk matters


Concerns which are relevant to other enforcing bodies e.g. relating to businesses closed under the emergency legislation, which is not enforced by HSE


Concerns which are straightforward and handled and resolved at the first point of contact in HSE


Concerns which are not straightforward, so are considered (or under consideration) by field teams


224.Of the 2,684 non-straightforward concerns HSE received, HSE has provided the resolutions reached for 1,912 cases. We assume that the remaining cases are still open. During the pandemic, HSE inspectors have followed up with all employers to make that sure all remedial actions agreed have been implemented. In normal times, such 100% checks would not take place. The 1,912 concerns considered saw outcomes as shown in the table below:272

Outcome of concerns considered by field teams

Volume of outcome

Concerns considered by HSE field teams


Concerns resolved with decision that no further action was needed


Verbal advice provided in response to concern


Letter sent to dutyholders requiring that certain actions needed to be taken in response to concerns


Prohibition notice served (other measures would have been taken before prohibition, hence failure to sum if this item is included in the total figure)


225.In addition to the one employer to whom HSE issued a prohibition notice, HSE told us that some employers also chose to stop operating when they were told by HSE that their way of working was not safe.273 Sarah Albon, HSE Chief Executive, said that issuing a prohibition notice requires an inspector to think somebody is likely to contract Covid-19, considering the likelihood of contracting Covid-19 at all and its prevalence in the general population. We heard that this would restrict prohibition notices to work environments where Covid-19 is particularly prevalent, such as intensive care units and some nursing homes.274 HSE does not record the instances where employers voluntarily ceased operations, and so it is not possible to say how many businesses have closed following an intervention by HSE inspectors.275

226.HSE enforces health and safety at nursing care homes, as well as in most kinds of NHS and private healthcare settings. Local authorities, the Care Quality Commission or the Care Inspectorate Wales enforce health and safety at residential (that is, non nursing) care homes. We asked HSE how many of the care homes within its remit it had inspected in the last 6 months. It has inspected three care homes in the past 6 months, with the most recent inspection being on 10 March 2020.276

227.HSE has received thousands of concerns from people concerned about safety at work during the pandemic. It has required just one business to close. It has not, however, inspected a single care home since 10 March 2020. Without records of the number of businesses that have closed voluntarily after an intervention by HSE, it is impossible to get a clear picture of the impact its work has had. We recommend that HSE consider how it could improve the detail and transparency of its reporting, to send a clear message to the public that raising concerns with HSE does result in action against employers where necessary.

Coronavirus risk assessment procedures and spot checks

228.All businesses have a legal duty to conduct a risk assessment under Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.277 HSE’s webpages set out how the risk assessment should consider the coronavirus pandemic. The guidance says that employers should:

229.Where a union is recognised, employers are legally required to consult with union health and safety representatives to promote, develop and maintain measures to ensure health and safety at work.279 Similarly, employee safety representatives must also be consulted. Once a risk assessment is produced, government guidance says that employers should share their risk assessment with workers and consider publication of the risk assessment on the employer’s website.280

230.The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to provide their employees with information on the risks to their health and safety identified by a risk assessment, and the preventive and protective measures in place.281 Publishing the risk assessment is not a legal requirement, but the government has said that it “expects” employers with more than 50 employees to do so.282

231.The TUC recommended on 4 May 2020 that risk assessments should be produced with union representatives, or with the wider workforce in non-unionised workplaces.283 A week later the Government published guidance entitled “Working safely during coronavirus”, which confirmed that unions and workers must be consulted on the risk assessment, saying that employers must:

carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment, just as you would for other health and safety related hazards. This risk assessment must be done in consultation with unions or workers.284

232.The TUC also recommended that all employers should publish and submit their risk assessments to a “government portal” before staff return to work, and that “enforcement of the publication” should be the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).285 HSE is usually the lead enforcing authority only for higher risk workplaces, with local authorities responsible for enforcing health and safety in lower risk workplaces.286 The TUC has also called for physical spot checks of businesses, saying:

233.On 11 May 2020, the Prime Minister indicated that HSE would carry out spot checks to ensure workplaces are “covid secure”:

We are going to insist that businesses across this country look after their workers and are covid-secure and covid-compliant. The Health and Safety Executive will be enforcing that, and we will have spot inspections to make sure that businesses are keeping their employees safe287

HSE wrote to the Committee on 3 June 2020, saying that it had started “a programme of interventions to check how businesses are implementing social distancing, including spot checks carried out by calling businesses and through on-site inspections”. It said that target sites were selected “using a range of intelligence sources including analysis of concerns raised with HSE about social distancing”. HSE also says that it may hire temporary staff to undertake such spot checks.288

234.The National Local Authority Enforcement Code sets out the health and safety enforcement approach that local authority inspectors should adopt when inspecting employers. The code says that unannounced inspections should only be used for specified high risk premises, or where intelligence suggests that risks are not being effectively managed.289 At the moment, businesses such as shops, offices, pubs, clubs and postal services are not part of the specified list where unannounced inspections can generally occur,290 and they generally fall under the enforcement remit of local authorities.291 This could mean that local authorities find it more difficult to perform spot checks to confirm that employees in these workplaces are safe during the pandemic.

235.While spot checks, or “proactive inspections” are a clear part of the strategy for keeping people safe at work during the pandemic, HSE and local authorities have decreased the use of spot checks significantly in recent years. In March 2015, DWP produced a report showing that HSE had, as planned, cut proactive inspection by around a third from that in 201011, with remaining inspections in high risk sectors only, or where there was some existing information to suggest an intervention may be useful. The same report detailed that the number of local authority proactive inspections decreased by 95% between 200910 and 201314.292

236.The Prime Minister has made clear that spot checks will play an important role in making sure people are safe at work during the pandemic. It is less clear, however, how many spot checks will be required, how the employers subject to a spot check will be selected, whether and how HSE is expecting to work with local authorities on spot checks, or how HSE and local authorities will be able to increase the volume of spot checks conducted after a long period of performing a reduced number of checks.

237.We recommend that HSE sets, or is set by central government or DWP, specific targets for the number of spot checks it will complete to see whether people are being kept safe at work, and whether risk assessments are in place and are appropriate. The volume and results of these spot checks should be publicly available, and it should be made clear what risk considerations were used to determine the businesses subject to these checks. Clarity should also be provided on the role local authorities will play in spot checks, and the types of businesses on which local authorities can perform spot checks.

HSE funding

238.The amount of taxpayer funding HSE receives has reduced in recent years, from £142.6m in 201516 to 129.2m in 201920.293 While HSE has been able to increase the income it receives to supplement its taxpayer funding, its operating expenditure reduced by around £17m (around £37m in real terms) between 201314 and 201819.294 Sarah Albon, HSE Chief Executive, told us that HSE has suffered from a lack of investment in core infrastructure, such as modern IT.295

239.The Government announced an additional £14m of funding for HSE on 11 May. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, said that this funding would:

Provide resource for additional call centre staff, inspectors and equipment if needed. In many cases, this will meet the demands of employers and employees who would like further information on how to ensure that workplaces are safe. For the extremely small minority of businesses that do not follow the rules, the HSE and local authorities will not hesitate in using their powers, including enforcement notices, to secure improvements.296

HSE’s senior leadership found out about the additional funding on the same day that the announcement was made.297

240.HSE has provided us with more detail about how it expects to use the funding, saying that work planned and under consideration includes:

Establishment of an inbound enquiry service in response to the covid pandemic, to offer advice and guidance to both employers and employees

Undertaking proactive compliance spot checks in relation to business compliance with covid-19 requirements

Recruiting temporary resource to undertake spot checks and physical inspections where deficiencies in risk assessments requires further reassurance

Specialist expertise in infection control to support the development of further guidance in complex social distancing issues and to support investigations into covid related incidents

Working with Local Authorities to ensure consistent standards of regulatory activity

Communications activity to reach and engage a wider employer audience, and reassure employees and the public.

Targeted scientific and research activities into the effects of covid-19 in the workplace, to support the evaluation and development of further control measures in the workplace.298

241.We asked HSE’s senior leaders whether it had the resources it needed to respond to the pandemic. They told us that, through the additional funding and re-prioritising of existing resources, it has sufficient resources for the immediate term. HSE plans to discuss medium- and longer-term funding requirements with DWP as part of its response to the Spending Review.299 The Chancellor announced the launch of the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review as part of the 11 March 2011 Budget Speech, saying that he expected it to conclude in July 2020,300 though this has since been delayed.301

242.The Health and Safety Executive has seen a 9.4% fall in its taxpayer funding since 2015–16, with knock on effects for the amount of money it can spend keeping people safe at work. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, it was having to make important decisions on prioritisation of expenditure, and it has now seen a substantial increase in its workload. The Government’s provision of extra funding is welcome, but it is likely only to be a sticking plaster. What is needed is a clear medium- and long-term plan for future funding of the HSE.

243.We recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) clarify and publicise the role that the HSE will play in keeping workers safe during the pandemic, whether through employer spot checks, involvement in the risk assessment process, or any other responsibilities. The Department and the HSE should then establish the level of funding HSE needs to implement this new and future inspection regimes, and make sure that it receives that funding. The level of future funding needed by HSE should be reassessed at regular intervals.

Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences

244.The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) set out an employer’s duty to report serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences. The reporting helps enforcing agencies, such as HSE and local authorities, to identify where and how risks arise, and whether they need to be investigated. It also allows them to target their work and provide advice about how to avoid work-related deaths, injuries, ill health and accidental loss.302 RIDDOR reporting is done through the HSE webpages.

245.HSE’s webpages also have guidance about RIDDOR reporting related to covid-19. The guidance says that employers must only make a report under RIDDOR when one of the following occurs:

We heard from HSE’s Chief Executive, Sarah Albon, that HSE had received the following volumes of Covid-19 related RIDDOR reports as at 12 May:

246.Other public information about workplace deaths from coronavirus suggest that these figures are lower than they should be. On 6 May 2020, the Prime Minister said that 107 NHS and 29 care workers had died from coronavirus.306 As of 6 May, 42 Transport for London staff had died from coronavirus.307 In evidence to the Committee, HSE accepted there was likely to be “significant under-reporting, particularly in NHS settings” of coronavirus occupational deaths. On this under-reporting, HSE chief executive Sarah Albon said:

I don’t know whether it is simply something that they are late in doing or whether it is a misunderstanding of the RIDDOR regulations and what is required to be reported.308

247.HSE is usually the lead enforcing authority of health and safety legislation for higher risk workplaces, and local authorities are the enforcing agency for lower risk workplaces. In general, local authorities are the main enforcing authority for retail, wholesale distribution and warehousing, hotel and catering premises, offices, and the consumer/leisure industries.309 The pandemic clearly means that risks in some of these businesses have been heightened. Sarah Albon said that she was not aware of any work being done to compile workplace safety concerns into a single dataset.310 In a subsequent letter to the Committee, HSE said that:

Any concerns or issues raised by Local Authority Environmental Health Officers feed into HSE’s own intelligence gathering and will inform any HSE input into relevant work being done by other government departments and public health bodies in England, Scotland and Wales.311

248.We asked HSE what it was doing to address the under-reporting of dangerous occurrence, occupational disease and occupational deaths related to Covid-19. HSE said that it had worked with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to remind NHS employers of their legal duty to report relevant Covid-19 deaths under RIDDOR, through a DHSC internal bulletin on 1 May 2020. A similar message was communicated to the social care sector and DHSC have indicated to HSE that a second communication on the topic is forthcoming.312 HSE also included RIDDOR content in several of the e-bulletins it produces. Of these, “Construction bulletin” and “HSE Weekly Digest” have the most subscribers, with 198k and 160k respectively.313 HSE also promoted RIDDOR content on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin on 6 April. HSE is reviewing web-based RIDDOR reporting guidance, in response to feedback received, and says that:

Once the new guidance has been published on our website, we will proactively engage with key sectors to promote this to help ensure that it is consistently understood and applied314

249.We asked HSE how soon it would be able to publish a regional and sector breakdown of deaths caused by the coronavirus outbreak. HSE told us that it has been considering how it can present the data it receives on the cases of covid-19 based on statutory RIDDOR notifications. It is expected that this data will be published by 11 June 2020 and will be updated weekly. The data is expected to include breakdowns by disease severity, sector, region, enforcing authority and week of report. HSE has communicated its intention to publish this information to the ONS, “to ensure coherency in the information coming out of Government”.315

250.HSE concedes that the number of occupational deaths it has recorded through RIDDOR reporting is likely to be significantly lower than the reality, particularly in NHS settings. We are not persuaded that its efforts to tackle under-reporting have gone far enough or fast enough. In early June, it was still working on new guidance.

251.We recommend that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) quickly adopts a more proactive response to ensuring that the risks and deaths linked to workplace coronavirus exposure are properly recorded by care homes, NHS bodies, and other workplaces where there is a high risk of exposure to the virus.

252.We were also concerned to hear that workplace safety concerns raised with HSE and with local authorities are not being formally compiled into a single dataset. Doing so could assist the Government in ensuring people are going back to work in a way that is as safe as possible. We also recommend that HSE and local authorities should consult and consider ways in which their relationship could be strengthened, and in particular how their more knowledge and information could be shared more consistently and comprehensively.

266 Trade Union Congress, Protecting workers’ safety in the coronavirus pandemic (April 2020), p 4

268 Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain, May 2020

270 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q47

273 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q92

274 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q91

277 The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (SI 1999/3242)

278 Health and Safety Executive, Working safely during the coronavirus outbreak – a short guide , May 2020, p 2

279 Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, section 2

280 Government guidance, ‘Working safely during coronavirus (Covid-19)’, accessed 26 May 2020

281 The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (SI 1999/3242)

282 Government guidance, ‘Working safely during coronavirus (Covid-19)’, accessed 26 May 2020

283 Trade Union Congress, ‘TUC proposals on ensuring a safe return to work’, accessed 13 May 2020

284 Government guidance, ‘Working safely during coronavirus (Covid-19)’, accessed 26 May 2020

285 Trade Union Congress, ‘TUC proposals on ensuring a safe return to work’ , accessed 13 May 2020

286 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q56

287 HC Deb, 11 May 2020, col 34 [Commons Chamber]

289 Health and Safety Executive, ‘National Local Authority Enforcement Code Health and Safety at Work England, Scotland & Wales’, accessed via Health and Safety Executive webpages 4 June, p 2

290 Health and Safety Executive, ‘List of activities/sectors considered suitable for proactive inspection’, accessed via Health and Safety Executive webpages 4 June

292 Department for Work and Pensions, A final progress report on implementation of health and safety reforms , March 2015, p 8–10

293 Health and Safety Executive, HSE 2019–20 business plan, April 2019, p 11

294 The reduction is calculated through analysis of HSE financial statements. The stated reduction is calculated by taking the operating expenditure for 201314, as given in the 201415 accounts and excluding spend related to the Office for Nuclear Regulation, and comparing this to the operating expenditure in 201819. To calculate the real terms reduction, Treasury deflator rates were used to turn the operating expenditure from 201314 into 201819 prices, and comparing this to the operating expenditure in 201819.

295 Oral evidence taken on 4 March 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q45

296 HC Deb, 12 May 2020, col 51 [Commons Chamber]

297 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q114

300 HM Treasury, ‘Budget Speech 2020’, accessed 26 May 2020

301 HM Treasury, ‘Comprehensive Spending Review 2020 representations: guidance’, accessed 26 May 2020

302 Health and Safety Executive, Reporting accidents and incidents at work—A brief guide to the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR), October 2013, p 1

303 We accessed this guidance in May 2020. It has since been changed.The section on occupational disease RIDDOR reporting now reads:
“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

304 Health and Safety Executive webpages, ‘RIDDOR reporting of covid-19’, accessed 22 May 2020

305 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q114

306 HC Deb, 6 May 2020, col 547 [Commons Chamber]

307 HC Deb, 12 May 2020, col 166 [Commons Chamber]

308 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q107

309 Health and Safety Executive webpages, ‘Local authority enforcement’, accessed 5 June

310 Oral evidence taken on 12 May 2020, HC [201921] 39, Q88

313 Ibid.

314 Ibid.

Published: 22 June 2020