Back to basics

02 June 2015

Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), writes about the benefits of keeping it simple.

Ever more robust procedures are being implemented up and down the country to protect the nation’s workforce from injury and ill health. As more and more complex issues arise - continually updating work processes, changing legislation, psychosocial conditions - it’s right that the vast majority of UK firms rise to meet these challenges.

But as we look to tackle the problematic issues, more simple problems can often be dismissed all too easily.

By now we should all be familiar with how to safeguard against 'old' injuries such as slips and trips. But this knowledge is now so ingrained that we can become dangerously lured into a false sense of security, believing that those kinds of mishaps are consigned to history.

Unfortunately the opposite is true, and a 'new' population of people is having these same old injuries. They are the issues that can cause the country - and those who suffer them - the most damage.

In 2013/14, 4.7 million work days were lost due to workplace injuries, with employees taking on average 7.5 days off. The most frequent causes of injury are manual handling, slips and trips, and falls from height, and can cost companies heavily in fines as well as lost productivity.

Significant recent prosecutions by the HSE show just how a company can be hit financially by such preventable accidents. Take metal recycling firm BW Riddle, fined £70,000 and ordered to pay £18,000 in costs at Lincoln Crown Court for safety breaches, after a worker was left with broken ribs when he fell from a sloping conveyor belt. RHP Merchants and Construction was fined a total of £20,000 and ordered to pay £9,414 in costs at Cardiff Magistrates’ Court, when an employee fell around 8ft from a single storey roof to the ground when a beam he was standing on gave way.

Other recent prosecutions include aircraft firm ATC (Lasham), which was fined a total of £35,000 and ordered to pay £32,430 in costs at Salisbury Crown Court in December, after three workers were injured in separate falls at its airfield in Lasham - two in the same month. One suffered injuries that were at first thought to be life threatening when they fell five metres to the tarmac while fixing a door; another broke a knee when a weld gave way on a scissor lift; and the third fell from an aircraft stand that was missing a guardrail, fracturing a thumb in three places.

In all three cases the employees were lucky enough to escape with their lives.

In December, E2 Developments was fined a total of £66,000 with costs of £13,200, and Albion Tower and Scaffold (East Midlands) was fined £53,000 and ordered to pay £15,500 in costs at Stafford Crown Court after a worker fell around seven metres to his death in Staffordshire. A roofer involved was also fined, while the director of Albion Tower and Scaffold was given a suspended prison sentence as well as a fine.

So you see, something seen as being a 'small' issue, one which 'everyone knows how to avoid', can quickly become a tragedy, and as such should never be overlooked. There’s a need to balance tackling the complex issues with keeping your eye on the ball and remembering the things which can, literally, easily trip you up.

These old injuries are caused by accidents we know how to prevent, and employers need to get a grip on the basics.