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Government office fined after staff failed to follow social distancing rules

Written by on 11 September 2020

A government office has been fined for health and safety breaches after failing to take adequate steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

An inspection found the management at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) site in Leeds had not done enough to ensure workers could socially distance during the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff were seen congregating around desks talking in contravention of the two-metre guidance, including with a line manager present, while designated two-way routes were found to be too narrow and some communal areas had not been cordoned off.

It comes after Leeds was added to the government’s watchlist after COVID-19 cases spiked.

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The inspection of the offices followed concerns of ‘poor social distancing practices’

The DWP has said it had taken “urgent action to rectify all issues identified” at the Quarry House office.

The Health and Safety Executive carried out the inspection on 25 August after concerns were raised “regarding poor social distancing practices” at the office.

The subsequent report stated: “You are failing to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of your employees at work because you have not implemented necessary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

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An accompanying letter sent by the inspector said: “You will have to pay a fee because I have identified contraventions of health and safety law which are material breaches.”

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Designated two-way routes were found to be too narrow. Pic; HSE
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Some communal areas had not been cordoned off. Pic: HSE

The report also said the DWP’s risk assessed occupancy rate for the office of about 50% “may be ambitious and unrealistic”, and highlighted the risk of congestion and difficulties of social distancing.

It said: “The main walkways around the building and floors which are occupied by DWP at QH have been designated two-way travel with highlighted crossing points.

“Many of these walkways are little more than 1m wide and pass very close to desks that are designated as usable.

“The pedestrian traffic was relatively frequent as staff moved around the building to get to work locations, tea points and toilets.”

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Stairs designated for two-way travel also “don’t appear to be sufficiently wide enough to allow 2m distancing to be maintained, even at designated passing points”.

The report added: “Staff were seen to be congregating around desks talking and not following social distancing, especially just prior to leaving, including a line manager giving instruction to a group of staff about the following day.

“Line managers are an important level of management in respect of health and safety policies and procedures and should be used to both lead by example and encourage compliance to social distancing rules via effective supervision.”

The DWP was given a deadline of Tuesday 15 September to confirm action had been taken to resolve the issues highlighted in the report.

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A DWP spokesperson said: “We take the health and safety of staff extremely seriously, and have implemented COVID-secure measures across our sites to ensure they comply with government guidelines.

“We have taken urgent action to rectify all issues identified by the HSE.”

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said: “The HSE report on the DWP Leeds Office shows that the government has failed staff and the wider community by not adhering to basic health and safety legislation.

“There is a very real danger of a second Covid spike and this incident makes a mockery of DWP’s insistence that offices open until 8pm to the public when they can’t even maintain social distancing.

“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.”