By New Worker correspondent
RIDDOR, Covid and under-reporting is the title of a short but damning report published by the Trades Union Congress on Sunday. It demonstrates that there has been massive underestimation by employers, public and private, of the number of deaths from COVID-19 contracted in the workplace.
RIDDOR is the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, which was established in 2013.
According to the bosses, a mere 2.5 per cent of working age COVID-19 deaths were caused by workplace exposure. The TUC, using Office of National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England (PHE) data, paints a very different picture. They argue that the system for reporting workplace deaths and infections is “letting bad bosses off the hook”, and that under-reporting has badly undermined health and safety regulation and enforcement during the pandemic.
The precise figures are that between April 2020 and April 2021 the ONS reported that 15,263 people of working age died from COVID-19. On the other hand, according to reports filed by employers only 387 (2.5 per cent) of these deaths came from workers contracting COVID-19 at work.
Of course it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint whether medical conditions came from work or pleasure. A computer games fanatic might claim his hours in the office were responsible for his repetitive strain injury and it is sometimes debateable if a postman’s bad knees come from his round or the football pitch. But the ONS figures are likely to be more reliable than the claims of bosses who could face a day in court.
Employers are obliged to report cases of COVID-19 infection where exposure occurs as a result of a person’s work – but it is left to employer who “must 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”.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, a total of 32,022 COVID-19 infections and 387 deaths were reported under RIDDOR.
Even the official Health and Safety Executive (HSE) accepts that there is “widespread under-reporting”. Of the 387 deaths, only 216 occupational COVID-19 fatalities were worthy of investigation.
“Ethical” investments consultancy Pirc states that COVID-19 infections at food factories could be more than 30 times higher than reported. In the transport sector there were 608 COVID-19 deaths amongst transport workers between March and December 2020, but only 10 formal notifications.
An ONS study shows that there are significant variations in infection rates. Those able to work at home had much lower rates and jobs where social distancing was impossible had higher rates. The lack of access to sick pay has also increased the risks of spreading the disease as those showing minor symptoms would come into work because they cannot afford to take time off, thus spreading the disease.
Only amongst health and social care workers is there a higher is a higher correlation between the number of deaths recorded by ONS and the number reports made by bosses in the NHS and private sector. Here 886 recorded deaths were matched by 271 reports from bosses. As hospitals and care homes are places for less than healthy people, even that is likely to be an underestimate. Food manufacturing is another particularly badly hit area, the Pre-Christmas rush saw more workers in factories.
The TUC has concerns about how HSE advice on COVID and RIDDOR is being interpreted. The HSE accepts that there is “widespread under-reporting” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This appears to be an understatement. It is likely that the official figures – 216 occupational COVID-19 deaths worthy of investigation – are falling well short of the true number of fatalities following work-related COVID-19 transmission.
Amongst the cases not reported by bosses were two workers at a Kent salad factory in Kent who died after 70 employees tested positive. Here the employer, Bakkavor, refused to report the deaths via RIDDOR. Before the fatalities, concerns had been raised about poor PPE and social distancing.
In the education sector, at Burnley College bosses refused to report the death of a teacher even after a known outbreak. It was only when her union, UCU, reported it to the HSE did the College properly report it. In such cases the role of effective trade union health and safety representatives is clearly essential.
The TUC suggests this lack of reporting is due to the official guidance and the HSE needs to take a tougher line to force employers to report such deaths. It points out that both the HSE and local authorities (who also regulate workplace safety) have suffered drastic funding cuts in the last 10 years. In 2009/10 the HSE received £231 million from the Government, and in 2019/20 it received just £123 million. The Government’s pandemic one-year cash injection to HSE largely went on contractors.
RIDDOR, Covid and under-reporting can be freely downloaded from the TUC website.