Bosses have been warned they risk criminal prosecution if they try to force employees to work without adequate protection against coronavirus.
The warning came on the eve of the return to work called for by Boris Johnson in his strategy for relaxing lockdown restrictions.
And the HSE’s chief executive Sarah Albon said her inspectors will be ready to issue enforcement notices requiring employers to cease dangerous practices or take additional protective action, with the sanction of criminal prosecution if they are ignored.
The government has allocated an additional £14 million to the HSE to enable it to carry out spot-checks on reopening work venues.
But unions said the money amounted to just 10 per cent of the cuts absorbed by the agency over the past decade of austerity, and questioned whether enough inspectors would be available to mount the necessary safety checks.
Mr Sharma’s Business Department has released guidance, drawn up in consultation with industry and unions, on safety measures in eight workplace settings now allowed to operate, from construction sites to factories and takeaways.
Companies aiming to reopen must carry out Covid-19 risk assessments, redesign workplaces to allow two-metre distancing and introduce more frequent cleaning. They are advised to consider staggering shift times, imposing one-way routes round premises and reorganising desks and work-stations so employees face away from each other.
Speaking at the daily 10 Downing Street coronavirus briefing, Mr Sharma urged employers to follow the guidance and work with unions and staff “to keep each other safe”.
And he added: “To workers I say: we are looking out for you, we want you to feel confident that you are financially supported and returning to a safe workplace.
“Because in this time, like no other, we all need to work together safely as we rebuild our economy.”
Mr Sharma told the briefing: “Employers have a duty to keep employees safe in the workplace – that is absolutely enshrined in law.
“If somebody feels their workplace is not safe, they have to take that up with their employer.
“If they don’t feel they are getting any traction they absolutely should get in touch with the Health and Safety Executive or the local authority.”
Spelling out the HSE’s powers, Ms Albon said: “Inspectors can require businesses to do certain things – enforcement notices, requiring them to take particular kinds of action.
“In the most extreme circumstances if there is a risk of serious injury to an individual employee they can issue a notice which prohibits certain activities from taking place.
“Breach of those kind of enforcement notices is essentially a criminal offence and we can prosecute people who fail to do the right thing.”
Mr Johnson has said he does not expect a “flood” of people to return to work this week, following new guidance that encourages those who are unable to do their jobs at home to be ready to go to factories and construction sites from Wednesday.
But unions have voiced concern that staff may feel pressured to turn up, even if they are worried about the risk of infection in their workplace or while commuting by public transport.
The general secretary of the Prospect union, Mike Clancy, said that the HSE’s funding boost would not make up for 10 years of cuts which had left it with fewer than 500 main grade inspectors across the UK.
“The new money will presumably partly be used to fund new inspectors but capacity is needed as soon as possible,” said Mr Clancy.
“How are the existing inspectors expected to do the required inspections, while also training new inspectors? And will these new inspectors be permanent positions?
“All these are questions the government must answer urgently so that workers know they will be able to return to work safely and that their workplace will be adequately regulated.”
In the House of Commons, Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband challenged Mr Sharma to confirm that “workers who have a reasonable belief that they will be in danger do not have to be at work”.
Official statistics showed that construction workers are more likely to die from coronavirus than average members of the public, he said.
“It is the highest-paid workers who will generally carry on being able to work from home and lower-paid workers who are being asked to go back to work,” said Mr Miliband.
“Whatever the economic pressures, their health must be protected. They deserve to be safe and that is what the government must take every action to ensure.”