Coronavirus: Third of UK workers are worried about catching Covid-19 at work

Low-paid and younger employees less likely to raise concerns

Sarah Young@sarah_j_young
Tuesday 03 November 2020 08:25
Boris Johnson announces second national lockdown

More than a third of UK workers are worried about catching coronavirus in their workplace, despite the majority of businesses taking “significant steps” to protect staff, new research has found.

The study, conducted by independent think tank Resolution Foundation, also suggested low-paid workers are less likely than those on higher wages to voice concerns or to see issues resolved if they are raised.

Similarly, younger workers are also less likely to raise a complaint.

The online survey of more than 6,000 adult workers examined the extent of workers’ Covid concerns, what steps employers are taking to make workplaces Covid-secure, and how unsafe practices are being dealt with.

It found that nearly half (47 per cent) of employees rate the risk of Covid-19 transmission at work as fairly or very high. And despite 90 per cent of employers taking multiple steps to mitigate risks – such as providing hand sanitiser or enforcing social distancing – more than one-in-three (35 per cent) workers are still worried about catching coronavirus on the job.

The study also notes that people’s Covid concerns are driven by both their personal characteristics and where they work. 

Covid concerns are most common among black, Asian and minority ethnic workers (47 per cent), those living in a household where someone’s shielding (45 per cent), and among workers in caring (44 per cent) and customer-facing (41 per cent) roles, such as shops and restaurants.

However, the report shows that workers who are most worried about Covid in the workplace are often the least likely to raise concerns about it.  

For example, the workers in the lowest weekly pay quintile are far less likely to raise Covid-related safety complaints as those in the highest pay quintile (52 per cent, compared to 72 per cent).

Similarly, 18-24-year-old workers are almost half as likely to raise a Covid-related complaint as 55-64-year-old workers (36 per cent, compared to 67 per cent).

As a result of the findings, Resolution Foundation is calling on the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to step up its role in tackling the risk of catching and spreading the virus at work.

However, the report notes that the HSE has entered the pandemic severely under-resourced, with its budget per premise under its inspection remit more than halving over the past decade, from £224 in 2010-11 to just £100 in 2020-21.

“More than one-in-three workers are worried are catching coronavirus on the job, despite the extensive steps employers have taken to make workplaces Covid-secure,” said Lindsay Judge, research director at the Resolution Foundation.

“Given many workers’ limited ability to get employers to address Covid concerns, the UK needs a strong enforcement regime to ensure that workplaces are as safe as can be. But instead health and safety resources have been cut, inspections have been slow, and Covid-related enforcement notices are few and far between.”

Jo Bibby, director of health at the health foundation, added: “Where we work can have a significant impact on our health, particularly during a pandemic.  While many on higher incomes will have the option of working from home and reducing their risk of exposure to Covid-19, more of those on lower incomes have no option but to go into work.

“[The] government has a duty to protect every member of society and must ensure that all employers are able to provide a safe environment for their staff in line with the evidence on Covid-19.”

The findings come as England prepares to enter a four-week full lockdown to help curb the spread of coronavirus.

Under the measures, which will be in place from 5 November until 2 December, people may only leave home for a specific set of reasons, including work, if they cannot work from home.

The prime minister has stated that a number of businesses will be allowed to stay open for the duration of the second lockdown including essential retail, such as supermarkets, garages and construction.

“Workplaces should stay open where people can't work from home - for example in the construction or manufacturing sectors,” Boris Johnson said on Saturday.

However, non-essential retail, such as clothing stores, as well as leisure and entertainment venues will be forced to close.

In May, Mr Johnson outlined how workplaces could begin reopening in England following a period of strict lockdown, stating that they would need to become “Covid-secure” in order to ensure the safe return of workers, who had been working from home since March.

On the government’s website, it has published 14 guides for ensuring workplaces are Covid-secure amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with measures including increased cleaning, social distancing, keeping doors and windows open where possible and introducing one-way systems.

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