Companies have reportedly exploited looser lockdown rules during the third national lockdown, bringing non-essential workers into sometimes busy workplaces.
The Observer study found that no enforcement notices have been served to companies by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors for COVID-19 safety breaches since the UK went into the latest lockdown.
However, HSE has been contacted 2,945 times about workplace safety issues between 6 and 14 January.
Overall, just 0.1% of the nearly 97,000 COVID-19 safety cases dealt with by HSE during the pandemic resulted in an improvement of workplace safety. But no company was prosecuted for COVID-related breaches of safety laws.
A survey carried out by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA) also found that one in nine workers said they had been ordered back to their workplace when they could have worked from home.
Charlie Thompson, partner in employment at Stewarts law firm, told HR magazine that employees should feel able to speak out against unsafe working procedures.
He said: “If an employee feels they are being unreasonably pressurised to return to an unsafe working environment – especially if you are able to work from home – they may wish to raise a concern with their employer.”
Thompson said that it is unlawful for employers to dismiss a worker or subject them to a detriment if they have raised a qualifying concern.
In the first week of January this year, teachers who were told to go back to work after the christmas break quoted article 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and said that schools were an unsafe work environment.
Headteachers even took legal action against the Department for Education in an attempt to force ministers to reveal why they thought it safe to reopen schools.
Thompson added: “When the legislation was drafted in the 90s and amended in the 2010s, a global pandemic might not have been at the front of anyone’s mind but use of this protection by employees will almost certainly increase, especially when restrictions are lifted further, and employers seek a return to ‘normal’.”
The study also found that one in 10 of those doing insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts and agency or gig economy jobs, said they had been to work within 10 days of a positive COVID-19 test.