Workplace inspections | HSE fines government department over poor social distancing

Workplace inspections | HSE fines government department over poor social distancing

HSE inspectors have written a damning report on a government office after it was found to be failing in its duty to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Workers were seen gathered around a desk in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) office in Leeds, where there have been two confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said managers had failed to ensure social distancing was being maintained. While most of the employees at the DWP’s Leeds office have been working from home, hundreds have been in the workplace throughout the pandemic.

Issues were raised when a DWP employee who had been working at home had become concerned for his health on return to the office. The ‘whistleblower’ said there had been a recruitment drive at the DWP amid a rise in Universal Credit claimants due to the COVID-19 lockdown. He said: “I hear stories about people congregating, not following outlaid guidance. In an office so big it is difficult to monitor 24/7.”

The worried worker added: “People I have spoken to are nervous about a return, they and I feel it is not yet safe enough to go back. The office was busy pre-COVID, I don’t know where everyone would operate from in normal times let alone in a virus outbreak.”

The HSE inspected the office after receiving the whistleblower’s “workplace concern”. During the visit, photographs were taken of the workplace, including one showing workers stood closely together.

Damning report

The HSE inspection report informed the DWP: “You are failing to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of your employees/agency staff at work because you have not implemented necessary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19”.

The report added: “Staff were seen to be congregating around desks, talking and not following social distancing, especially just prior to leaving, including a line manager giving instruction to a group of staff about the following day. 

Line managers are an important level of management in respect of health and safety policies and procedures and should be used to both lead by example and encourage compliance to social distancing rules via effective supervision”.

The DWP had risk assessed for the office only being about 50% full. The HSE said this was “ambitious and unrealistic”, leading to a risk of “congestion” and that it made it more difficult to maintain social distancing.

The highly critical HSE report found:

Charles Law, industrial officer with the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “It’s extremely worrying for our members who work for the department, especially if they’re expected to stop being at home and come into the workplace”.

Mr Law added: “It’s shocking that the HSE would do such a damning report on a flagship DWP office and we’re extremely concerned for the safety of our members”.

Following the visit, the HSE sent the DWP an official letter, known as a Notification of Contravention. The letter informed the DWP that a fee would need to be paid because of “material breaches” of health and safety law.

The DWP says it has taken “urgent action to rectify all issues identified” at the office.

Become COVID confident with our Health & Safety support

If you’re not fully confident in your COVID-19 compliance, we can assign a dedicated Health & Safety Consultant to help you to put in place all necessary arrangements and demonstrate them through bespoke documentation and software. That way, you can protect your people, resume your operations safely and be regulator-ready at all times. Here’s what one of our clients had to say about a recent pain-free inspection:

"We were recently approached by the HSE to verify and demonstrate that all staff social distancing measures were in place at one of our sites and also to evidence that guidance on PPE had been communicated clearly and effectively with our staff members. As a result of the comprehensive risk assessments, PPE records, site guidance notes, posters and materials for briefing, we were able to satisfy the HSE that we were compliant with all requirements within 48 hours. We could not have asked for a better outcome."

Ian Harvey, Head of Compliance, GFM Ltd

To find out how our personalised, fixed-fee service can give you peace of mind, call 0345 226 8393 or visit our Coronavirus Advice Hub for all of our free risk management resources.

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