Seven people who worked at Cranswick Foods were hospitalised after contracting Covid-19 earlier this year © Christopher Thomond/Guardian/Eyevine

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When Dave Baxter was put into the back of the ambulance, he asked his partner to tell his work that he wouldn’t make it in that day. He worked in a meat factory near the English town of Barnsley run by Cranswick Foods, which produces products for supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range. It was April 2020 and, while many people were locked down at home to avoid Covid-19, key workers like Mr Baxter were working harder than ever to keep the nation fed. But the virus caught up with him. Seven workers from his factory were hospitalised and three, including Mr Baxter, died.

For many, going out to work in the morning has never felt so risky. While the vast majority of employers have taken steps to try to protect workers from Covid-19, more than a third of UK employees are still actively worried about catching it at work, according to a survey of 6,000 people by the Resolution Foundation think-tank. Yet the UK’s health and safety regulator has been slow to inspect workplaces and has failed to collect data on outbreaks. This makes it hard to spot patterns or learn lessons that could help protect key workers through the second wave.

What happened at Cranswick after three staff died is revealing. Grieving relatives reported concerns about social distancing at the factory to the Health and Safety Executive, the regulator. “She’s scared to go to work, but on the other hand, she needs to go to work,” one former staff member told me in May of a friend who still worked there. But HSE did not send an inspector. Instead, it was satisfied by calls and emails from company management that detailed the safety measures in place.

John Healey, a local MP, says staff and family members “needed and had a right to know that their workplace was safe, and the very agency that had a statutory responsibility for that, went to ground”. It was only in July, when the same factory suffered another Covid-19 outbreak, that HSE paid a visit.

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In 2019, the regulator averaged roughly 1,600 inspections per month but in April, May and June this year, when Covid-19 was at its peak, it managed only 129, 248 and 342 physical inspections respectively, according to data obtained by the Resolution Foundation.

HSE has said it was trying to protect its inspectors from the virus and has now picked up speed. But the 2,000-or-so inspections it performed in September were still about 30 per cent fewer than it was doing in 2010, before deep spending cuts implemented by the coalition government. Its operating budget has been cut from about £224 per workplace it was responsible for in 2010, to just £100, according to Resolution.

The other problem is the dearth of statistics, rather than just local news reports, on where outbreaks happen. Employers have a legal duty to report certain workplace accidents and occupational diseases to HSE via so-called Riddor reports. HSE uses these to help determine where to do inspections and investigations; they are also a critical data source for identifying trends.

But HSE has told employers they only have to file Riddor reports for employees with Covid-19 if there is “reasonable evidence that a work-related exposure is the likely cause of the disease”. Of course, no one can know for sure where someone contracted Covid-19. So many employers have chosen not to file Riddor reports at all, blaming “community transmission” instead.

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Cranswick Foods, for example, did not file Riddor reports for Mr Baxter or the other workers who died. Nor has it filed a single Riddor report for the 175 staff who tested positive for Covid-19 in a separate outbreak in its Norfolk factory last month. A Cranswick spokesman told me “there’s no evidence any of our positive cases have been caused by working at Cranswick”. He also said the company had worked closely with HSE and other agencies, had implemented measures in accordance with government guidelines, and that the health and safety of staff was its first priority.

PIRC, a shareholder advisory, says under-reporting is endemic. It published a report in September that found there had been at least 1,461 Covid-19 cases in food manufacturing, including 6 deaths, based on local media reports. Yet HSE’s Riddor data only show 123 cases in the sector and one death.

Without data, we have no robust way to study why some workplaces in a particular sector avoid Covid-19 outbreaks and others don’t, whether that might be because of protective safety gear, line speeds, different types of ventilation, or wider factors such as company sick pay or transport to work.

As England enters its second lockdown, key workers are on the front line again to keep the rest of us fed and cared for. We must do better to protect them while they do it.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

Letter in response to this article:

Key workers deserve more protection in second wave / From Keith Corkan, Woodfines Solicitors, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK

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