Occupational health and safety in Scotland after the Covid-19 pandemic: the case for new principles, policies and practices

Today, 3 August 2020, the Jimmy Reid Foundation releases a new report on occupational health and safety in Scotland after the Covid-19 pandemic by Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling. The paper argues the case for new principles, policies and practices involving lessons society has forgotten, lessons society has learnt and lessons society should apply in the future by examining three themes:

  • The challenges to worker health and safety in Scotland during the pandemic;
  • How those challenges relate to past failures and missed opportunities in the UK and Scotland on worker health and safety prior to 2020; and
  • The future for worker health and safety in a devolved or independent Scotland.

Set in the framework of the ascendancy of neo-liberalism which has driven de-regulation on occupational health and safety throughout Britain but where the Holyrood Parliament has the opportunity to diverge in many respects from the path pursued by Westminster, the paper makes the following recommendations:

  • Scotland needs an 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. Safeguarding the workforce also safeguards communities, public health and the economy from the damage done by occupational illnesses and injuries.
  • A Scottish Occupational Health Service Agency (SOHSA) should be developed and mainstreamed within NHS Scotland to end the employer driven, free market delivery of occupational health interventions deeply distrusted by workers and unions
  • Scottish worker health and safety should be based on effective and coherent principles, policies and practices geared to prevention. This is currently often missing or marginalised in a deregulatory climate that highlights ‘flexibility, proportionate and common-sense action’ which is a code for inaction
  • Worker health and safety should never again be neglected in pandemic planning by public health bodies lacking expertise and autonomy and unable to effectively safeguard all workers at risk
  • Unlike the UK, the Scottish Government should adopt, in a devolved or independent state, all ILO conventions on occupational health and effective precautionary principles.

Commenting on his paper, Professor Watterson said: ‘The challenges presented by COVID-19 have revealed many failings in the way the UK has addressed worker health and public health: the two cannot be divided. Scotland has faced the pandemic challenge far better than the UK Government. It is critical that it now builds on its work post-pandemic and improves worker health and safety through a range of measures involving health, social and economic policy changes and with recovery plans that create healthy and safe jobs across Scotland in a radical Green New Deal’.

Professor Gregor Gall, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, added: ‘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’.

About the author Professor Andrew Watterson is Professor of Health in the Occupational and Environmental Health and Public Health and Population Health research groups at the University of Stirling.