Britain’s safety at work regulator refused to investigate reports from NHS trusts that 10 frontline staff had died as a result of catching Covid-19 during the pandemic.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) declined to look into at least 89 dangerous incidents that NHS trusts said involved healthcare workers being exposed to Covid, including 10 deaths.
The stance taken by the HSE, which oversees workplace health and safety and can bring prosecutions, is disclosed in freedom of information requests by the Pharmaceutical Journal. It has prompted concern that the regulator is too strict in its definition of workplace harm.
It found that 173 trusts in England submitted at least 6,007 reports about employees’ exposure to Covid-19 in the course of their duties to the HSE between 30 January 2020 and 11 March 2022, under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR).
They included 213 “dangerous occurrences”, which are incidents that have the potential to cause significant harm; 5,753 cases where a staff member had caught Covid-19; and 41 deaths among people who had been exposed to the disease at their workplace.
However, the HSE refused to look into five Covid deaths reported under the RIDDOR scheme by the Yorkshire ambulance service (YAS) because of what it considered a lack of evidence.
The YAS’s response to the Pharmaceutical Journal said that “HSE maintained that the occupational exposure of Covid-19 could not be clearly linked to the workplace as community cases were also highly prevalent at the time”.
The regulator also decided not to look into the Covid deaths of five staff at University College London hospital acute trust, despite the trust’s belief they had caught it at work. “The HSE found that there was no reasonable evidence that the infection was contracted at work,” a trust spokesperson said.
Shelly Asquith, the health, safety and wellbeing officer at the Trades Union Congress, said the HSE’s decisions and claimed lack of evidence was “really concerning”. It suggested a continued “element of denial about Covid being airborne and it not being possible to necessarily pinpoint where exactly somebody was exposed once it’s in the air”, she added.
Prof Raymond Agius, the co-chair of the British Medical Association’s occupational medicine committee, said: “The HSE threshold for RIDDOR reporting, as shown by HSE’s guidance and its correspondence with employers [trusts], is too high. It does not take into account the increased risk health and care staff face simply by sharing the same environment as patients, even if they aren’t directly clinically treating those who are known to be Covid-positive.”
An HSE spokesperson said that while “the pandemic was challenging for all concerned”, it was important that RIDDOR reports were based on “accurate information about workplace exposure and risk”.
While it insisted during the pandemic on trusts submitting reports based on “reasonable evidence” that infection was work-related, “this does not mean that we discouraged reporting”, they added.