International Workers Memorial Day 2019 – steps for the future

Work health & safety

Sunday 28 April is International Workers Memorial Day. It is the annual opportunity to reflect on those who have lost their lives, as well as those injured through accident or by exposure to dangerous substances over the course of their employment.

This year’s theme is removing dangerous substances from the workplace. Of course, there have been regulations in force since 1992 that deal with controlling dangerous substances. These regulations originated from Europe and have improved conditions for workers across the United Kingdom, leading to less people losing their lives at work.

It is perhaps appropriate to consider this impact, particularly when our relationship with the rest of Europe continues to be so uncertain.

The year before the first European referendum, and also the year in which the Health and Safety at Work Act was passed in 1974, saw over 336,000 non-fatal injuries reported to the Health and Safety Executive.

By 1992, a raft of regulations originating from Europe were introduced into the UK, and the number of reported non-fatal injuries reduced to 170,000.

Continuing strengthening of the measures, allied to heightened awareness within workplaces, led to the number of reported injuries reaching 111,000 by 2012.

A reduction of 67%.

When considering the figures since 2012, we need to bear in mind that in that year the requirement to report injuries was changed from those that involved an absence from work for a period of three days or more, to those that led to a seven day or more absence.

However, the number of reportable accidents has reduced and plateaued over the last few years at around 70,000.

Health and Safety recommendations from All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG)

The importance of continued vigilance cannot be overstated. It was therefore very encouraging to see the All Party Parliamentary Group on Working at Height (APPG) produce a balanced and pragmatic report in February this year.

Whilst concentrating on those who work at heights, a number of the recommendations and principles apply equally across the wider workplace environment.

First recommendation – better reporting of accidents involving falls

The first recommendation was for enhanced reporting of accidents involving falls. This would include providing more detail about the accident circumstances.

In addition to the provision of further information, serious consideration should be given to reverting to the previous system of reporting accidents involving absences of three days or more.

Second recommendation – independent reporting for all near misses and accidents

The second recommendation related to the appointment of an independent body to allow confidential, enhanced and digital reporting of all near misses and accidents that do not qualify for RIDDOR reporting.

This data would be shared with government and industry to inform health and safety policy. This is a sensible policy which again should be extended across all industries.

This point also highlights the issue of underreporting. The Labour Force Survey consistently suggests that around one half of workplace accidents are simply not reported as they should be, which puts the scale of the issue into a sharp context.

Third recommendation – extend Fatal Accident Inquiry System across UK

A further recommendation was to extend the Fatal Accident Inquiry system within Scotland across the UK.

Inquiries for deaths within the workplace are mandatory. Lessons ought to be learned from every avoidable death, and any measure which facilitates this ought to be welcomed.

Fourth recommendation – penalties for health and safety failures

The APPG also suggested that further consultation should take place on a couple of issues, notably, a major review of work at height culture. This should include an investigation into the suitability of legally binding financial penalties in health and safety - funds which could be used towards raising awareness and training, particularly in hard to reach sectors.

The question of enforcement has long been a thorny one. The level of prosecution in relation to health and safety breaches has been pitifully low.

Of particular concern is the reluctance of the Crown, especially in Scotland, to prosecute employers for failing to have in place employers liability insurance, which has been compulsory since 1972.

Employers who think avoiding insurance premiums is fine are hardly likely to be investing in health and safety measures, leading to higher incidences of accidents in their workplaces - a point picked up by the APPG.

The time has long since passed for the creation of an Employers Liability Insurers Bureau (ELIB). Similar to the Motor Insurers Bureau, which was created in 1946 to deal with claims on behalf of those people injured by uninsured or untraced motorists, the ELIB would deal with those injured, almost inevitably through no fault of their own, within the workplace, and where no insurance was taken out by the employer or relevant contractor. Any review, such as suggested by the APPG, should certainly consider carefully, the establishment of such a body.

Each of us expects those who go to work to come back in the same condition as when they left. There are proactive steps that we can take to ensure that the number of those injured or killed in the workplace is reduced to the absolute minimum. We should be taking those steps.

Gordon Dalyell

Gordon Dalyell,
Digby Brown