Is our H&S record worsening?

9th July 2018

On the 4th July 2018 the HSE published its annual workplace fatality figures which show that there has been a 6.6% increase in the number of workers being fatally injured at work.  In actual numbers, this means that 144 individuals were recorded as having died as a result of a workplace incident in the year between April 2017 and March 2018, compared to 135 the previous year. 

Broken down slightly, the construction and agriculture industries accounted for the largest shares of any industry (38 and 29 of the 144 respectively) with the most common cause of fatal injuries being falls from height (35) and moving vehicles (26).

In its press release the HSE acknowledged that these figures are a “source of concern”, and indicated that we should not become complacent about our health and safety record, which has long been the “envy of much of the world”.

Should we therefore be concerned that these figures indicate a worsening UK health and safety record, or is this spike just an anomaly?

European comparison

The HSE published separate statistics in November 2017 which confirmed that the UK “consistently has one of the lowest rates of fatal injury across the EU”, and the standardised UK rate of 0.55 deaths per 100,000 employees (as published in 2014) was considerably lower than comparable EU member states including France (3.14 per 100,000), Spain (1.47 per 100,000), Italy (1.15 per 100,000) and Germany (0.81 per 100,000). 

The same report referenced the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), which showed that 18% of UK workers believe that their health and safety is put at risk as a result of their job.  Whilst this may sound high, it is again far lower than a number of our neighbouring countries, most notably France (34%) and Spain (36%).

The HSE is due to update its European-wide statistics in October this year, so it will be interesting to see whether the continental picture as a whole has changed alongside the UK.

It will be interesting to see whether the way in which health and safety statistics are gathered and reported will change post-Brexit – and indeed whether the EU will continue to influence and shape our domestic laws for health and safety regulation.

Are statistics enough?

Statistics do not, of course, tell the whole story.  They also need to be viewed in perspective.  For example, whilst workplace fatality rates might vary drastically from country to country, the figures for one country may be skewed by the fact that it has a much higher number of workers overall, or because the type of work undertaken in that country is inherently more risky (i.e. it has a higher proportion of agricultural or construction workers) than countries whose workforce is largely engaged in lower risk sectors. 

It is for this reason that Eurostat provides “standardised” rates across EU member states.  And on that front, the UK still comes out on top.

Of course, these statistics only relate to workplace fatalities; HSE is yet to report last year’s figures for injury and ill-health, which will arguably give a better indication (when taken together with the fatality rate) as to whether the UK’s H&S record is actually getting worse. 

Any analysis of those statistics, of course, will also need to be judged against whether the overall reporting of incidents has improved as a result of better compliance with reporting procedures, rather than due to an overall decline in effective H&S management.

Future picture

What is clear, however, is that the UK remains the leading European nation for health and safety compliance, and our record is still significantly better than it was even 7 years ago (when there were 171 workplace deaths), let alone 44 years ago, at the time of the advent of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

It will be interesting to see whether the way in which health and safety statistics are gathered and reported will change post-Brexit – and indeed whether the EU will continue to influence and shape our domestic laws for health and safety regulation. 

Today, though, the focus of employers should not be on what the wider UK statistics show, but instead on continuing to interrogate what the business’s own trends analysis is telling them; using both reflection on past incidents and foresight of known or potential risks, in order to tighten procedures and influence behaviours.  That is the only way that together, we can ensure the UK’s overall record remains amongst the best in the world.

For more information please contact Kevin Elliott or Catherine Henney.

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