Every business has a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of both employees and members of the public. While accidents do happen, adopting a robust approach to workplace health and safety is key to keeping employees safe.
The latest statistics
The latest fatality statistics from the Health and Safety Executive make for worrying reading with provisional findings showing that 135 workers were killed in work-related accidents in 2022/23. Whilst this is a return to pre-Covid-19 levels, it’s also an increase on the previous year, when there were 123 fatalities.
Analysis of statistics shows which types of fatal accident were most common; the sectors that experienced the highest number of fatalities; and the age profile of the workers.
Construction and agriculture, forestry and fishing continue to account for the greatest number of fatal accidents. Fatalities in the construction sector increased by more than 50% from 29 in 2021/22 to 45 in 2022/23.
Although it’s too early to determine whether this year’s increase in work-related fatal injuries is a trend or just an anomaly, the figures are worrying. “I am concerned that these figures point to a deterioration in safety behaviours and the resources directed to the effective management of health and safety since the pandemic,” says Mark Pearce, loss control technical lead at Allianz. “The increase in fatalities in the construction sector is particularly concerning.”
The risk of a fatal accident is certainly higher in some sectors, with construction and agriculture, forestry and fishing the biggest contributors to the HSE statistics. While this is partly down to the manual nature of work undertaken, other factors may have raised the risk for workers across all sectors.
What’s causing the increase in injuries?
As a result of factors such as Brexit, an ageing workforce and a post-pandemic employment rethink, the UK is experiencing a labour shortage. Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that 13% of businesses were experiencing worker shortages in mid-July 2023, with jobs ranging from bricklayers through to home carers and agricultural workers included on the government’s list of shortage occupations.
To illustrate how large these shortages are, the latest Construction Skills Network report states that an extra 225,000 construction workers will be needed by 2027.
The ONS report also highlights a worrying consequence of the skills shortage. Nearly four out of 10 businesses (38%) struggling to recruit are asking employees to work increased hours to cover. Longer hours can lead to tired employees, poor decision-making, and more risk.
The pandemic has left lasting impressions on the workplace. As businesses adapted, roles and responsibilities changed. Some businesses were forced to lay-off staff or rely on temporary staff to meet new and fluctuating demands.
New processes were also introduced, whether to deal with the restrictions that were in place or to accommodate a shift in the business’s operations, for example the addition of meal delivery to a restaurant.
Unfortunately, with many businesses focusing on survival and meeting all the requirements to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, routine health and safety was often put on hold.
Now, although normality has returned, many businesses are still trying to catch up with their health and safety training or refresh what they provide to reflect changes in the business.
“The pandemic led to a reliance on digital training. Whilst we embrace the use of on-line training methods for some topics, we’ve seen examples from the HSE where this has been less effective than on-site, face-to-face training, ultimately contributing towards workplace accidents,” states Mark Merrix, head of casualty claims at Allianz.
Inflationary pressures also feed into the risk. Rising costs can mean that businesses hire cheaper but less experienced workers or cut corners on training and health and safety measures.
The pinch is being felt at the HSE too. A series of Freedom of Information requests by trade union Unite found a significant reduction in the number of unannounced construction inspections. In 2013/14, it undertook 11,303 proactive construction inspections but by 2021/22, this figure had fallen to just 7,793 inspections. This represents a reduction of a third (31%) over less than a decade.
Sadly, fewer inspections inevitably means that health and safety can become less of a priority and standards can slip.
The business implications
Ensuring a proactive and robust approach to health and safety is a must for every organisation. Without it, businesses face a variety of unwanted consequences.
First and foremost, no organisation wants work to be the cause of an employee illness, injury, or death. Unfortunately, as well as the 135 workers killed in work-related accidents, the latest HSE health and safety statistics (2021/22) show that 565,000 working people sustained an injury at work, with 61,713 of these injuries reported under RIDDOR.
Additionally, 1.8 million working people suffered a work-related illness, of which work-related stress, depression, or anxiety (914,000 workers) and work-related musculoskeletal disorders (477,000 workers) were the two main conditions.
Even where no incidents occur, a lax approach to health and safety can affect employees. Everyone wants to feel safe at work and if employees perceive that their employer is not taking their health and safety seriously, it can quickly lead to lower morale and higher sickness absence and turnover rates.
It can also damage an organisation’s reputation. Workplace accidents make the news, especially when the organisation is prosecuted. This will affect the company’s image with customers as well as with current and prospective employees.
Alongside the financial implications of a damaged reputation and lower employee morale, organisations with a poor health and safety record can also find themselves hit with fines and insurance claims.
Recent examples include National Rail’s fine of £1.2m following the death of an employee who was crushed by a railway track while carrying out maintenance work; a £1m fine for a manufacturing company after an employee was seriously injured and lost an eye when he was struck in the face by a crane hook ; and a £200,000 fine for a manufacturing company that failed to protect two of its workers from exposure to vibration.
In some cases, a health and safety failing can even result in a custodial sentence. In August 2023, Joseph Jones, the owner of JJ Tyres & Recovering in Bootle, was jailed for 10 months for an accident at his premises. Kenny McCord had been salvaging spare parts under a tipper van when the flatbed fell and crushed him. Although his colleagues were able to release him and he underwent surgery, he later died from his injuries. The HSE investigation found Jones had no risk assessments, safe systems of work or lifting plan and did not provide staff with adequate training.
Making health and safety a priority
Rising costs, supply chain issues and difficult trading conditions are making it a tough time for many UK businesses. While it may be tempting to reduce investment in health and safety to get through this period, this is an area that every business should be prioritising.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the minimum an employer must do to protect employees and others is:
- Identify hazards that could cause injury or illness in the business.
- Determine the risk that someone could be harmed and how seriously.
- Take action to eliminate the hazard, or if that isn’t possible, control the risk.
- Effectively managing health and safety, identifying hazards, and putting in place measures to eliminate or reduce and control risk is key to providing a safe environment for employees and others, including minimising the potential for accidents and incidents to occur.
Managing health and safety
The HSE advocates a common sense and practical approach to managing for health and safety, citing the following areas as key to an effective strategy:
- Leadership and management, including appropriate business processes
- A trained / skilled workforce
- An environment where people are trusted and involved.
The importance of a culture that supports health and safety cannot be overstated. Knowing that the organisation and its leaders take health and safety seriously, managing any risks and providing appropriate training and, where necessary, personal protective equipment, will encourage employees to act appropriately and report any potential issues.
“It’s impossible to eradicate all accidents and incidents, but it’s important to recognise the extent to which human behaviour plays a part. An organisation’s ability to positively impact the behaviour of its workforce, both direct employees and others, is key to effective health and safety management” said Helen Bancroft, casualty account manager at Allianz.
An effective approach to health and safety
An organisation’s approach to managing health and safety should also be systematic and sustained. This ensures that any changes that may occur within the organisation that could affect risk are picked up quickly.
As an example, if an organisation starts making a different product or changes suppliers or there’s a change in working hours, a sustained approach will identify how this affects risk before it potentially causes an accident.
The iterative Plan, Do, Check, Act process can help to identify the health and safety actions required, relating them back, where appropriate, to leadership, management, training, and worker involvement. This works as follows:
- Determine the policy
- Planning the implementation
- Profile health and safety risks
- Organise for health and safety
- Implement the plan
- Measure performance
- Investigate accidents and incidents
- Review performance
- Learn lessons
By using this process to test the risks within the workplace, most small, low-risk organisations can effectively manage health and safety.
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If you are concerned about how this affects you and your business and would like support in assessing your needs, we are here to help. Please do get in touch for confidential advice and guidance.
This article was adapted from an article by Allianz which can be found here.