One of the things we've doing at work since the pandemic hit is looking at the spread of Covid in the workplace, in particular in food processing. My colleague Alice Martin wrote a really good research note on the sector which we published back in September and we're continuing to engage with companies. Earlier this month our research was mentioned in parliament by Labour's shadow minister for food Daniel Zeichner MP.
It struck us early in the year that there was a problem in the sector and our discussions with unions both suggested some particular cases of concern, and alerted us to potential unreported fatalities. To put the latter point another way, unions were aware of Covid deaths in the sector that companies had not disclosed publicly (at least at that point). In addition, by doing a big of digging into various info sources we were able to compare this with prior safety concerns in the sector, which added quite a bit to our understanding.
By late spring/early summer it was clear that food processing in general and meat processing in particular were Covid hotspots and outbreaks were reported at sites all over the world. Notably some research issued by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) highlight that in terms of workplace Covid clusters, food packing and processing sites came third after long-term care facilities and hospitals. As of August the ECDC had found 153 clusters reported between March and July in the sector (compared to 591 in care, 241 in hospitals) involving 3,865 cases.
When we reviewed media reports in the UK, we were able to identify almost 1,500 cases and six fatalities. But these cases were not largely being officially reported as workplace infections. When we looked at RIDDOR reporting of Covid cases in the UK up to early August there were no fatalities and only 47 (forty-seven) cases across the whole country. Since we started highlighting this there seems to have been an uptick in cases, as of today (23 November) one fatality has been reported and 153 non-fatal cases.
Still, that's a lot less than the numbers of cases reported in the media. To take one example, 250 cases were reported at a single site in Watton in Norfolk. This one is particularly interesting as the rate of infections in Norfolk as a whole has been very low - it was about 25 cases per 100,000 people in North Norfolk - whereas the rate in Watton became the highest in country, at 1,515 per 100,000. This is important because companies have often said that cases identified at work may not have arisen at work, with shared accommodation and travel often highlighted as important factors. This may or may not be true, and we might also question if these factors are themselves created by employment model.
The fact that food processing is a Covid hotspot is also feeding into public policy decisions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the government has identified workers in food processing as a priority for testing (something also called for Labour politicians in Norfolk), and today I discovered that industry associations are also calling for them to be a priority for vaccination.
Something doesn't quite add up here. If the risk in the sector is high enough that we need to test and vaccinate the workforce ahead of others, and the cases keep piling up, it's hard to accept that the workplace isn't a signifiant site of transmission, and the RIDDOR figures look far too low. Notably the HSE itself has said there could be significant under-reporting.
In any case, if you are interested in the S in ESG, and worker safety during the pandemic in particular, I'd urge you to have a look at the sector.