FBU fears underreporting of COVID-19 infections in Fire and Rescue Service
27 July 2021
ACCORDING TO the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), the Government has failed to provide details of the number of cases of COVID exposure, infection and deaths reported by employers in the Fire and Rescue Service after being asked to do so in a Parliamentary Question and through a Freedom of Information request submitted to the Health and Safety Executive.
This has engendered concern within the FBU’s ranks that the Government is “hiding the failure” of Fire and Rescue Service employers to report COVID-19 figures properly. Employers, including those in the Fire and Rescue Service, have a legal obligation to report cases of COVID exposure, infection and deaths to the Health and Safety Executive where exposure occurs as a result of an individual’s work.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has previously expressed concerns that widespread underreporting in relation to this legal obligation may be taking place across sectors, and this is something that the Health and Safety Executive has accepted.
The Fire and Rescue Service is a public-facing one where staff are at significant risk of both catching COVID-19 and passing it on to members of the general public. Monitoring of the disease is therefore considered “vital” by the FBU.
Labour MP Grahame Morris asked the Home Office about the number of cases of the disease, deaths, dangerous occurrences and workplace outbreaks among Fire and Rescue Service employees that have been reported by fire bosses in a Parliamentary Question tabled on 8 July. Minister Kit Malthouse MP replied with no figures in relation to this on 15 July.
Malthouse did, however, state: “Ministers receive regular updates on levels of COVID-related employee absence in Fire and Rescue Services”, suggesting that the Government does hold some relevant data, but which it hasn’t taken the opportunity to share. According to the FBU, workplace absence data alone does not indicate that employers are meeting their obligation to report cases of COVID-19 infection where exposure occurs as a result of a person’s work.
The FBU observes that this is the second instance in which there has been a failure to provide details on the extent to which the disease has been present and reported by employers in the Fire and Rescue Service after the Health and Safety Executive refused to provide these details in response to a Freedom of Information request from the FBU on grounds of cost. In addition, approaches by FBU representatives locally to ensure cases are being reported have often been met with “silence or refusal” by some Chief Fire Officers.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, explained: “The repeated refusal to provide basic and up-to-date statistics on COVID and how it’s reported in the Fire and Rescue Service is a disgrace. It suggests that Fire and Rescue Service employers are not reporting these cases correctly.”
Wrack continued: “As front line workers, our members are risking their safety to go to work, and not least when they perform extra COVID duties, such as transferring COVID patients and moving the bodies of the deceased, which they have done. The very least that the Government can do is to help keep track of the situation and provide data to improve working conditions and support those workers who need it. We’ve battled fire bosses throughout the pandemic to try and make them put proper COVID safety measures in place and to report workplace cases and outbreaks accurately. Unless cases are reported correctly, we simply cannot plan properly to keep firefighters safe.”
Statutory Instrument of Parliament
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (commonly referred to as ‘RIDDOR’) is a Statutory Instrument of Parliament which, among other things, mandates employers to report deaths, injuries and illness – as well as ‘dangerous occurrences’ – that take place at work (or in connection with work) to the Health and Safety Executive.
Guidance issued by the Health and Safety Executive on COVID and ‘RIDDOR’ states: “For an incident to be reportable as a dangerous occurrence, the incident must have resulted (or could have resulted) in the release or escape of coronavirus... The assessment does not require any complex analysis, measurement or test, but rather for a reasonable judgement to be made as to whether the circumstances gave rise to a real risk or had the potential to cause significant harm.”
As stated, the TUC harbours concerns about how Health and Safety Executive advice on COVID and ‘RIDDOR’ is being interpreted. Again, and as stated, the Health and Safety Executive accepts that there is “widespread underreporting”. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggests the FBU, “this appears to be an understatement”.
Some commentators suggest it’s likely that the official figure – ie 216 occupational COVID-related deaths worthy of investigation – is falling well short of the true number of fatalities following work-related COVID transmission.
In a report entitled ‘COVID-19: Statutory Means of Scrutinising Workers’ Deaths and Disease’, Professor Agius states that ‘RIDDOR’ “might have failed in capturing many thousands of work-related COVID-19 disease cases and hundreds of deaths.”
A report from the ethical investments consultancy Pirc has concluded that COVID-19 infections at food factories could be more than 30 times higher than has actually been reported, with the official numbers for cases reported to the Health and Safety Executive “lacking credibility”.