The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been found in breach of health and safety law, after an inspector found poor social distancing and absence of other measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at its Leeds offices.
HSE visited Quarry House in Yorkshire, DWP’s head office on 25 August to assess the controls it had in place for coronavirus.
In the report the inspector filed, staff were seen to be congregating around desks talking and not following social distancing, including a line manager giving instruction to a group of staff standing within two metres of each other.
It was not clear that communal areas such as breakout pods, small tables and benches could not be used, such as by putting up ‘do not use’ signage, or boundary tape to prevent access.
Walkways did not allow for socially distanced passing. HSE inspector, Geoff Fletcher, writing his report, says: “Although you have undertaken a generic department wide Covid-19 risk assessment…the alterations and controls you have introduced are not sufficient to ensure that 2m social distance can be or is maintained in a range of circumstances."
DWP was found in breach of sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and will be sent an invoice (fee for intervention) based on an hourly rate of £154 per hour.
Commenting on what happened, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) which represents civil servants said the case demonstrates that office workers are safer at home.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said there is a danger of a second Covid spike: "It is unlikely this is an isolated incident and Boris Johnson should re-think forcing thousands of civil servants back to the office when the rate of covid infection in the country is rising significantly."
DWP has to confirm to HSE that it has taken action on each issue identified by 15 September. Actions include to ensure that line managers are trained and aware of their responsibilities in relation to health and safety so they are able to “lead by example and actively monitor social distancing compliance of their teams at work.”
DWP should also either ensure walkways are ‘one way’ or provide clear space either side of walkways from staff at desks. “This may require a review of whether nearby desks are useable and the movement of items of furniture.”
Leeds where the office is located has avoided being put in lockdown, despite other parts of Yorkshire doing so. But in common with many parts of England, cases have been rising.
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