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Lower earning workers are twice as likely to be physically injured or become ill at work than higher earners, new research has found.
More than a million people are injured or made ill by their work each year, with workplace injuries currently costing the UK £15bn a year, according to the research by think tank The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
The research warns that cases of illness from work could skyrocket as workers return to workplaces as the lockdown eases, due to coronavirus transmission concerns.
IPPR is calling on the government to make injury prevention a public health priority and to take further action to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in workplace.
Lesley Rankin, IPPR researcher and co-author of the report, said: “Preventing workplace injuries and illnesses is a matter of fairness. It is not right that people who earn less or are from disadvantaged communities are disproportionately hurt or made unwell at work.
“Injuries are a massive cost and burden to people, business and society. But injuries are not inevitable, and prevention is better than cure. Injuries can be prevented with the right safety measures and public information.
“A national strategy covering everywhere people work and live is needed, to coordinate efforts to reduce injury and illness and address the unequal impact on lower earners.”
The research argues that progress on reducing workplace injury and illness has stalled in the last decade as The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) — the body responsible for ensuring workplaces are secure against COVID-19 — has received a 53% reduction in funding since 2009/10 in real terms, and staff levels have fallen by 33%.
Total local authority health and safety workplace visits in England, Scotland, and Wales fell by 73% and proactive visits fell by 93%, according to IPPR.
IPPR is urging the government to implement a national strategy to prevent physical or psychological harm everywhere people work and live by bringing together business, unions and health and safety bodies to create a coordinated and funded national strategy for injury prevention.
The think tank’s report advises the government to introduce new measures in order to reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission in workplaces including raising and expanding statutory sick pay so people can self-isolate if needed without fear of financial insecurity, bolstering whistleblower policies to ensure employees feel able to raise concerns about their safety and customers’ safety in their workplace, and requiring businesses with 50 or more employees publish their coronavirus risk assessments.
IPPR also want the government to set aside £1.5bn ($2bn) towards helping small businesses struggling to make the changes that would make their workplaces “Covid secure.”
The report also highlights further key areas where it says the government should take steps to reduce risks of injury and illness. IPPR wants the government to commit to long-term safe staffing levels in health and care environments and enable the Care Quality Commission to open legal proceedings against the secretary of state if they fall below agreed safe levels.
The report also calls for increased funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Local Authorities so they can carry out their roles more effectively and make workplaces safer.
The government should also support a reduction in car use by expanding and electrifying public transport in addition to measures to promote active transport such as walking or cycling to cut air pollution and support people’s health, IPPR said.
Henry Parkes, IPPR senior economist and co-author, said: “You often hear people talk about ‘health and safety gone mad’ — but what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is health and safety gone bad. Cuts to the Health and Safety Executive and Local Authorities will hamper our ability to carry out vital workplace inspections.
“The HSE is at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to make workplaces Covid secure as the lockdown eases, but it is now operating with far fewer staff than it had in 2008. This crisis has shown us just how important having strong health and safety enforcement and promotion is for our protection and wellbeing in the workplace.”