The (other) Invisible Threat

This is the biggest health crisis in my lifetime, worse than asbestos. Construction workers are ticking almost all of the at-risk boxes […] and the HSE is invisible; I’m amazed”

Lawrence Waterman, British Safety Council

After Boris Johnson ordered the Construction workers of the United Kingdom back-to- work he insisted that businesses would keep them safe from the virus and the HSE would be used to police that.

However, the HSE Inspectors were quickly ordered back to barracks and routine inspections stopped, signalling the fact they thought it too dangerous to go into the workplaces people where being sent back into.

The Prime Minister imagined a well-funded, well-resourced organisation sweeping through businesses carrying out spot checks. The reality fell somewhat short of this. Cuts to its budget since 2010 have led to an organisation that was too small to function in that fashion, even before the pandemic hit.

A few hours after Johnson spoke in May, “up to an extra £14m” was suddenly made available for the organisation “for extra call-centre employees, inspectors and equipment if needed” and inspections duly resumed

Despite that resumption, there has still been a distinct lack of public engagement from the HSE over the past year, according to British Safety Council chairman Lawrence Waterman, the situation is “astounding”.

A call soon went out to retired HSE Inspectors to assist in the effort. Despite the appeal, which went to 208 trained and experienced former inspectors, just 10 opted to take on the work.

Ramping up

Over the summer, the HSE sought to make good on the prime minister’s promise to ensure COVID-secure workplaces.

The 1,059 inspectors working for the HSE now balance COVID compliance on top of their other activities, with every site visited for any reason firstly checked for COVID measures prior to other risks.

Despite the prevalence of phone checks, the HSE also appears to believe that boots-on-the-ground inspections are still needed. In December, five months after its underwhelming attempt to rehire former inspectors, two private debt-collection companies were awarded contracts worth a combined £7m to carry out spot checks on behalf of the organisation.

More effort required

The British Safety Council’s Waterman is sceptical about the value of phone inspections: “I think it is one of those things where you can report the number of calls you make, you can show lots of activity – and I would have thought that it’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot,” he says.

“They know that to reach out to construction workers and their supervisors and managers, and thousands of small firms, they can’t just rely on posting something on their website because most of those people, amazingly, don’t just spend their time browsing the HSE website in the evening.”

Taken from an article by 26 JAN 2021 BY IAN WEINFASS published in Construction News

Martin Blythe,


OJ Health and Safety Solutions Ltd