MANY coronavirus-related illnesses and deaths could have been avoided in Scotland if the Scottish Government had more control over health and safety laws, according to a new report from the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

The paper on occupational health and safety, by Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling, says that Scotland has “faced the pandemic challenge” on worker health and safety “far better than the UK Government,” despite regulations being reserved to Westminster.

The academic says the crisis has revealed “how lacking in key powers the Scottish Government has been on worker health and safety and its capacity to ensure the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other regulators protect all Scottish workers, not just during a pandemic.”

The think tank says it’s now time for Scotland to have its own independent, properly resourced and staffed occupational health and safety body with effective representation at board level for workers and their unions, employers, local authorities and communities.

This Scottish Occupational Health Service Agency (SOHSA), the academic says, should “adopt the best available international principles to underpin occupational health and safety policies that work”.

UK policy has been “driven by a neo-liberal agenda that stretches back to Margaret Thatcher and through the Blair and Brown Labour governments to May and Johnson” which aimed to “de-regulate, or soften regulation through ‘better regulation’, occupational health and safety”.

This has led to health and safety being viewed as “a cost and a burden on industry” and these “better regulation” policies have ultimately led to “reduced inspections, monitoring, information and advice and enforcement on workplace risks in Scotland”.

Watterson says that if the UK had conducted a proper occupational health and safety impact assessment for all workers faced with exposure to the coronavirus, “many illnesses and deaths could have been avoided”, adding that it was “entirely predictable that multiple work locations would be hit by the pandemic”.

He claims that HSE “remarkably appeared to have ‘gone missing’ during the start of the Covid 19 pandemic” and that there was “minimal and often no action” against hospitals, factories, care homes, warehouses, offices and other workplaces who breached regulations.

Watterson has some criticism for the Scottish Government, saying that while they may not have control over either the HSE regulator or health and safety laws, there are a number of other interventions ministers in Edinburgh could have opted for over the years.

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The professor writes: “At various times throughout the 2000s repeated calls were made to strengthen Scottish Government policies and practices on occupational health and safety and to focus on prevention where it was possible to do so. It did not happen.

“If these approaches had been adopted, it seems highly unlikely that the Covid-19 risks to health care workers, social care workers, transport workers, public utility workers and other groups of workers would not have been recognised and acted upon much earlier.”

He says that some of the worst mistakes of the Scottish Government in planning for and dealing with the pandemic “came in the early stages and will have affected the mortality and morbidity of a range of Scottish workers”.

These errors, he adds, related to an “early reliance on UK Government policy and its advisory groups and specific scientific advisers”, meaning the likely speed, spread and overall impact of the virus was underestimated.

There have, however, been some later problems that have affected worker health and safety, including concerns about inadequate supplies of PPE.

This, he adds, was predicted by the Scottish Government’s Silver Swan training exercise conducted in 2015 across NHS Scotland health boards, to check preparedness for a flu pandemic.

He points out that in April, over three months after Covid-19 was confirmed in China, RCN Scotland still expressed concerns about whether staff had the PPE they needed not just in the NHS but in the communities, in the care homes, in the hospices – wherever care is being provided.

Professor Gregor Gall, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, said: “The Foundation very much welcomes Professor Watterson’s valuable contribution to not only critically analysing the state of play of occupational health and safety in Scotland in the period of the pandemic, but also by setting out a number of key recommendations which would significantly enhance the health and well-being of workers in Scotland.

“After all, we are constantly told by employers that workers are their most valuable asset. It is time this perspective was realised and Professor Watterson has provided the recommendations which would allow this to happen.”