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Occupational hazards - August 2021

22 July 2021

No one should have their life cut short by work, or through the work activities of others. That is why the fact that the UK continues to have a low number of work-related fatalities in comparison to other countries is no cause for celebration, says Ruth Wilkinson.

IN THE year up to 31 March 2021, 142 people in Great Britain lost their lives in a work-related accident. Each one of those deaths was an avoidable tragedy, caused by a failure in health and safety management systems, which left family and friends having to come to terms with a significant loss. Do you think that having comparatively low work-related fatality rates in the UK offers them comfort? I doubt it.

What the figures, recently published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), actually show us is that we need to do more to protect people at work and protect others impacted by work activities to prevent work-related fatal accidents. The number of fatalities has stayed very similar for quite a few years now, but it is far higher than it should be. So, everyone at every level of a business needs to ask themselves if they are doing everything they can to protect people and prevent harm.

Workplace fatalities are only ever the tip of the iceberg of health and safety failure. The figures published by the HSE for 2020-21 cover fatalities only, but we can safely assume there were many more people injured in work-related accidents, with many of those injuries serious and life-changing, as well as many more near misses. In addition, they don’t show how many people may have been exposed to something at work which immediately impacted on their physical or mental health or may do so in the future. The HSE figures also state that 60 members of the public were killed in 2020-21 in a work-related accident. 

That is why IOSH has called on business leaders, employers and self-employed people to review how they manage and organise health and safety to ensure their systems are as robust as they can be and follow the principles of good risk management. When undertaking the risk assessment process and going through the stages, it must consider all risk groups, including all employees, members of the public, contractors and others. The key is to have good occupational health and safety management in place. 

The further lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, such as ‘work from home if you can’ instruction, will see many more people return to their workplace, return to using public transport and returning to services. Employers by law must protect employees and others from health and safety risks. This was a requirement before Covid-19 and remains the same now. Businesses will quite rightly have a sharp focus on preventing and reducing the risk of Covid-19 transmission through their workplace and work activities and to workers and will have invested a lot of resource into making sure they are managing the risk. 

It is also important to remember that other risks are still present – they haven’t just gone away – and it is crucial that employers do not take their eye off the ball when it comes to identifying what could cause harm within their workplace or through their work activities.

One thing to note from the figures is that the number of fatalities increased in 2020-21, up from 113 in 2019-20, to be broadly in line with the number of the previous few years. The average over the past five years is 136. It is likely the 2019-20 figure being lower was partly down to Covid-19 restrictions being introduced and workplaces closing towards the end of the reporting period. 

It cannot be argued that the figures now are far improved from 20 years ago, when 292 deaths were recorded, and 1981 (the first year of the HSE reporting the figures) when 495 people were killed. 

However, the improvement has slowed up and the number has remained at a similar level for a decade or more. So, we have to ask ourselves what can be done to further reduce the number and prevent more people from suffering? Also, how can we identify a true picture of what is going on within workplaces, from not only looking at historical data but looking to more predictive/leading data to help inform action, controls, initiatives, and so on.

Just because your business is in a low-risk sector doesn’t mean you don’t need to manage risk – these figures are a reminder that we all need good health and safety management practices, so we can ensure that people can return home at the end of each working day safe and well.

Ruth Wilkinson is head of health and safety at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. For more information, visit www.iosh.com