International Workers Memorial Day 2020 and Covid-19

Delivery driver with COVID19 symbol

Today, Tuesday 28 April, is International Workers' Memorial Day. 

It is our annual opportunity to reflect on those who have lost their lives, as well as those injured through accident or exposure to dangerous substances, or suffering from mental health issues in the course of their employment.

Coronavirus and safety at work

This year, the focus is on the Coronavirus pandemic. Many workers across the world have lost their lives. Many are falling ill, whilst working at the forefront of the ongoing efforts against this disease, often without adequate or even any protection.

The current crisis has brought into very sharp focus, and in ways which none of us would imagined likely, even just a few short months ago, how important it is for those in the workplace to have proper systems of work, proper safety measures in place, and the provision of proper safety and protective equipment.

The longer term consequences of the crisis are uncertain. That there will be a significant impact on our economy and workplaces is clear. 

However the safety and health of those working across the country will continue to be of paramount importance. 

There may be a temptation for certain employers to adopt certain measures to ensure what they consider to be the appropriate ways to maintain viability. 

Those measures may lead to relaxation or avoidance of relevant safety and health standards. We have seen this type of behaviour in past crises.

We must be alert to this. There is no justification for lowering standards, and it is vital that existing regulations and rules are observed and enforced.

Workplace accidents and fatalities fallen over last 20 years 

The latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) summary statistics, for 2018-19, show that whilst there has been an overall reduction in workplace fatalities and accidents over the last 20 years, in the last few years, that downward trend has started to plateau somewhat. 

147 workers lost their lives at work in 2018/19.

Over 69,000 non-fatal injuries were reported to the HSE. Remember that for an injury to be reported, a seven day, or more, absence is required. 

We know that many injuries are not reported

The Labour Force Survey (LFS) estimate that the true seven day or more injury figure will be double the HSE one. 

The LFS also estimate the number of workers sustaining an injury at work in 2018/19 was around 580,000.

Fall in number of employers being prosecuted

Concerns about enforcement have been expressed over a number of years. 2018/19 saw a further fall in the number of cases prosecuted, as well as a decrease in the number of enforcement notices issued by the HSE and local authorities. 

To put this in context, in 2018/19 364 cases were prosecuted and a conviction obtained, a fall from 600 such cases in both 2014/15 and 2015/16. 

The number of enforcement notices has decreased from around 12,000 in 2014/15 to just over 11,000 last year.

Compared to the number of serious accidents and fatalities, let alone reported accidents, occurring in the workplaces across the country, this represents a very small minority of cases where any enforcement action is taken.

Adopting a prevention approach to health and safety at work

Suitable resources need to be provided to both the HSE and the Crown. There are, of course, many competing claims for these resources, but the way forward has to be adopting a prevention is better than cure approach, and that means proper resourcing in the appropriate places.

Workplace injury and ill-health costing £15 billion a year

The HSE estimate that the cost to the country of workplace injury and ill-health is around £15 billion a year

Whilst a third of that relates the workplace accident and injury cases, the far larger proportion is incurred by work related ill-health.

Work related stress, depression and anxiety on the rise

In 2018/19, the HSE report just over 600,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Over a third of these were new cases in that year. 

An estimated 12.8 million working days were lost due to ill-health.

The rate of these cases seems to be on the increase. That is likely to be even more prevalent in the coming year and beyond. 

Employers will need to be alert to the psychological effects of current working conditions.

Working environment will change after coronavirus pandemic

There is no doubt that our whole working environment will be very different at the far end of this crisis. 

Where we work, how we work, when we work, will all be subject to reassessment. Existing norms and assumptions are likely to be radically altered.  

Mental health within the workplace, however that is defined, will be of even more importance as we adapt to the changes which are undoubtedly coming. 

It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to ensure that the proper standards of looking after the safety and health of those in the workplace are maintained, and indeed enhanced, particularly in these difficult and challenging times.

At 11am, people are encouraged to take part in a minutes silence to remember workers who have lost their lives during the pandemic and to thank those who are continuing to work at great risk.

Gordon Dalyell

Gordon Dalyell,
Digby Brown