The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is facing scrutiny about its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic from MPs from the Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee.

On the surface, the numbers paint a picture of rigour and proactivity. To date, the HSE has spent £7 million on its COVID-19 response. Inspectors have carried out 6,000 visits during the outbreak. A further 160,000 interactions have also been recorded, including telephone calls and written correspondence. Indeed, many Southalls clients have been contacted by the HSE over the course of the crisis. 

However, businesses, unions and employees have raised concerns about the regulator’s lack of enforcement and follow-through – and the unprecedented use of external debt collectors to perform critical site inspections. Although these ‘spot-check support officers’ held letters of authorisation to work onsite, many companies feared they had fallen prey to a scam. Others challenged the contractors’ legitimacy and refused them entry.  

The questionable ‘tick box’ strategy has been blamed on decades of HSE budget cuts. Since April 2010, the number of HSE inspectors has fallen from 1,342 to 1,059, and the safety watchdog defended its decision to bolster its team with temporary contractors. But MPs and H&S influencers argue that third party workers lack the experience and authority to enforce vital compliance measures required to cut workplace transmission risks.  

Statistics bear out the theory. During 2019/20, the HSE served 1,800 prohibition notices, with only two linked to poor coronavirus controls. Of the 5,000 improvement notices issued, only 235 related to COVID-19.

Looking ahead to a safe return to work 

Despite the HSE backlash, businesses must remain committed to strict COVID-19 protocols. Working from home should continue where possible until June, but it’s wise to begin planning the safe return of staff. 

To support this, the HSE will provide updated employer guidance on returning employees to work post lockdown. These guidelines should be used as a starting point to shape your individual route to reopening. 

Preparations should also include a comprehensive review of COVID-19 risk assessments, paying particular attention to key requirements such as social distancing, face coverings and hand hygiene. 

If you have questions about your return-to-work safety programme or H&S support across a range of sectors, including manufacturing, retail and warehousing, get in touch with an experienced Southalls consultant on safetyadvice@southalls.com or 0345 257 4015.