Health & safety opinion

COVID-19 compliance one year on - cautious optimism?

By Chris Green

- Last updated on GMT

Green: 'Seeing regulators becoming more realistic' over infringements of COVID-19 compliance
Green: 'Seeing regulators becoming more realistic' over infringements of COVID-19 compliance

Related tags: Regulation

A year into the pandemic, we look back with the food and drink manufacturing industry reflecting the position of the wider sector, businesses in general and those employed in the industry.

At one end of the spectrum, output is now as productive as COVID-19-secure lines and processes will allow and headcounts, fleets and storage capacity are being expanded. Sadly, at the time of writing, suppliers to the licensed, leisure and hospitality sectors are still not back to business – perhaps closed altogether with barely a skeleton staff at the usually busy warehousing and production facilities.

The practicalities of lockdown are more uniform across each nation than at times before. However, the new variants and still high numbers testing positive or isolating have meant little choice than for those in the industry to make do and adapt as best they can.

The writer has heard of very rapid changes of role for those in many businesses. There have been new manual handling activities for staff from different parts of the business and unqualified staff being taken on at short notice with little or no induction. They may work alongside colleagues with or without symptoms or may need to attend the line to get paid – all the while fearing the consequences of a positive test, contracting the virus or having to self-isolate.

Transport and logistics a focus of inspection

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) continues to target transport and logistics as a current focus of its inspection campaign for COVID-19 compliance. More dynamic changes in that department of many food businesses will lead to more claims and enforcement notices.

It may be difficult enough for businesses to create a process to track and assess how changes on production lines generate new and different risks, or to monitor the usual day-to-day risks. But occupational road risks must not be at the back of that queue at this moment, whether for COVID-19 or more generic safety management controls.

We are seeing regulators becoming more realistic. The HSE is now appreciating that any incidents occurring now may not even get heard before a Crown Court jury until late 2023 and the Environment Agency is increasingly open to enforcement undertakings, rather than looking to prosecute.

HSE guidance on reporting COVID-19 incidents

The HSE guidance on reporting of COVID-19 incidents does not demand detailed investigations and is unlikely to require many to be reported under the recent clarification published on its website.

The HSE does understand the impact on the financial position and viability of some in the sector and courts are expressly reducing sentences due to the current perilous position.

The writer has been involved in helping food businesses deal with the joint HSE, local authority and Public Health England response to some COVID outbreak cases and cases where staff have died from coronavirus infection. However, the current phase of accidents is less about employees not following rules or due to lack of supervision. It is the indirect claims – where hastily thought-out work-arounds and rough assessments are undertaken before being documented – that we are already starting to see filter through.   

Chris Green is Partner – Crime and Regulatory at law firm Keoghs and a committee member of the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health Food and Drink Industries Group.

Related topics: COVID-19, Operations

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