Britons back at work could be using unsafe PPE, experts warn

People going back to work after the relaxation of lockdown restrictions may be unwittingly using personal protective equipment with false safety certificates, experts have warned.

Health and safety organisations including the British Standards Institute (BSI) have seen an increase in PPE being sold with documentation that is either inaccurate or has been falsified.

Items such as face masks and goggles require a CE mark, which verifies they have been tested by a standards body and meet the correct requirements.

But the BSI has warned of an increase in false certificates, while an expert who advised companies participating in the drive to build medical ventilators said he had seen examples of employers discovering they had bought unverified kit.

James Pink, the senior director of global health and safety organisation NSF International, said: “The risk is that there is non-conforming product out there giving us all a false assurance of safety.

“A lot of companies are not used to purchasing PPE, or just do it for occupational risk, rather than protecting against a communicable infectious agent. I’ve reviewed more than 10 companies that have been submitted as being a PPE supplier and there have been inaccuracies in documentation.”

He said this ranged from “brute falsification” to distributors mistakenly putting unverified kit into the market.

“If companies don’t go through that due diligence there’s a higher likelihood of PPE that’s not fit for purpose,” he said.

Pink called for the establishment of an early warning system to flag up potentially inappropriate PPE to employers. The BSI said employers should check PPE certificates through its VerifEye directory.

Concern that employers have been duped into buying substandard face masks and other protective equipment comes as broader fears increase about a lack of recourse for staff who are concerned that their workplace is unsafe.

The business minister, Alok Sharma, last week announced sector-specific guidelines for employers, as well as £14m in extra funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

But MPs said the sum was not nearly enough to make up for a decade-long slide in HSE’s government funding, from £239m in 2009 to £129m for 2019-20.

The Labour MP Dan Jarvis said the injection of £14m did not “come close to reversing the cuts imposed over the past decade. The HSE lost more than half of its budget while workplace inspections fell by 70%.

“We all want to get Britain back to work but only when it is safe to do so. The HSE and local government must be given the resources they need to ensure workers’ lives are not being put at risk.”

The shadow business minister, Ed Miliband, called the extra money “a drop in the ocean” last week.

The Guardian understands the HSE only found out about the new funding when Sharma announced it, meaning it had not started planning for how to use the money.

An HSE spokesperson said: “We’ve just been given the encouraging news of access to additional funding to support our advice and regulatory activity as businesses implement the new guidance on working safely during coronavirus.

“As businesses start getting back to work, we can see scope for making proactive enquiries of employers.

“We’ll need our approach to be adaptable and regularly reviewed as workplaces get to grips with managing this unprecedented health risk. We’re starting to put together plans as we speak.”

Gail Cartmail, an assistant general secretary at trade union Unite, said: “It is critical that employers and union safety reps double check the providence of all materials and that all certification and guidance information is clear and professionally produced, as this is often an indicator of fake goods.

“It is totally unacceptable that fake PPE is available and those willing to put workers’ lives at risk by making and selling the fakes must be dealt with extremely harshly.”

Rehana Azam, a national secretary at the GMB union, said there was not enough guidance for staff who may be working with no or inadequate PPE. “Throughout this pandemic the government has struggled to establish any credible industrial strategy for PPE,” she said.

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