Businesses could be significantly under-reporting the number of work-related Covid deaths to the government’s safety watchdog, new research suggests.
Forthcoming analysis by the TUC shows employers have notified the Health and Safety Executive of 387 work-related Covid deaths since April 2020 even though the Office for National Statistics has identified 15,263 people of working age who died from Covid over the same period.
“It is just not credible that only 2.5% of working-age Covid deaths are down to occupational exposure,” said Shelly Asquith, TUC health and safety officer. “We believe employers are massively under-reporting the number of people who have died after catching Covid at work.”
There have been 3,872 Covid outbreaks in workplaces and 4,253 outbreaks in education settings yet not a single employer has been prosecuted for breaching Covid regulations.
Asquith said the low level of reporting had endangered workers by preventing inspectors intervening in unsafe workplaces and could lead to lives being put at risk again in the future. This comes as millions of employees return to workplaces amid growing concerns about the increased transmissibility of the Covid variant first found in India, which is spreading fast in parts of the UK.
More than 600 transport and storage workers died last year from the virus, according to the ONS, but only 10 deaths in the sector were reported. Nearly 140 people working in schools, colleges and universities died last year but employers only informed the HSE of nine deaths.
Covid cases likely to have been caused by workplace exposure should be reported to the HSE. Yet the government’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea reported only one case during the largest workplace outbreak of the pandemic, in which more than 600 staff tested positive. DVLA said it had at all times followed HSE guidance.
Employers are supposed to report work-related Covid cases and deaths within 10 days. But unions believe this legal requirement is routinely flouted because firms are allowed to determine themselves if infections occurred inside or outside work.
Asquith, who carried out the research, added most of these deaths occurred during lockdowns when the hospitality industry was closed. “Work was the main place where people were mixing at that time and therefore it is likely that many of those deaths were work-related,” she added.
An HSE spokesperson said the differences between the figures were due to requirements under Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (Riddor): “Riddor is the first step in HSE inquiries into a case and direct evidence to suggest occupational exposure will be required, which is understandably challenging given the prevalence of Covid in the general population.”
The spokesperson added that the HSE had bolstered guidance for employers on reporting cases during the pandemic.