Workplace accidents - the real figures and why they matter

Work safety hard hat, goggles and gloves

Digby Brown Partner Gordon Dalyell considers recent Health and Safety Executive statistics and the challenges of improving workplace safety in light of recent legal and policy developments, in an article on this important topic. 

Key points:

• The overall number of fatalities at work shows a long-term decline. However, every death is an avoidable individual tragedy and one fatal accident is one too many

• We are starting to see the number of workplace accidents plateau, in contrast to the trend of decreasing numbers of accidents in previous years

• Weaker legal and workplace protections, through Section 69 of the Enterprise Act, the Trade Union Bill and decreased HSE enforcement, are threats to improving workplace safety

• It is important to consider UK practice and policy in comparison to other EU countries, particularly in light on the debate around Britain’s EU membership

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The recent publication of the annual Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics provides a timely opportunity to consider the current effectiveness of the HSE regime, particularly looking at recent and imminent legislative changes. The looming referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union is also an aspect that deserves some analysis at this point.

The headline figures are reasonably similar to those produced last year.

Fatal accidents at work still too high in the UK

142 people lost their lives through an accident at work across the UK in 2014/15. This is 6 more fatalities than the previous year. 33 less fatalities than in 2010/11, and over 130 less fatalities than in 2000/01.

Any long-term decrease in the number of fatal accidents at work is very welcome. However, every death at work is an avoidable individual tragedy. This figure is still 142 too many.

Accidents at work decreasing and starting to plateau

The number of employers reporting accidents at work was 76,054, which continues a downward trend with the HSE conclusion that, as with other areas, the trend is starting to plateau.

Of course one of the important aspects to remember with these figures is that the HSE records accidents at work that are actually reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) scheme.

The Labour Force Survey has consistently found that roughly one half of accidents at work are not reported and consequently they estimate that there were in fact around 152,000 work accidents leading to absences of 7 days or more, out of a total number of work accidents of around 611,000.

Why is the downwards trend of work accidents levelling off?

As is often the case, there is not one single answer but rather a combination of reasons as to why the downward trend of work accidents is levelling off.

Section 69 of the Enterprise Act

Has the implementation of section 69 of the Enterprise Act had any effect on health and safety? While the Act has now been in force for just over two years, it is still early days in assessing its precise effect. There have been only a few decisions from the courts. However, anecdotally, it would appear to be the case that those acting on behalf of injured workers are somewhat more wary and unwilling to take risks in the assessment and crucially the running of cases.

Trade Union bill

The onslaught from the Conservative UK government continues. The current Trade Union bill will affect the ability of health and safety representatives to fulfil their roles within the workplace. The contribution of these representatives has been an important feature of enhancing safety standards within workplaces and this move can only have a detrimental effect.

The effect of a weakened legal framework and restrictions on union-led health and safety activity in the workplace is that Employers more concerned with their bottom line may be persuaded to take more risks and the levelling off of the figures would suggest that this may indeed be the case.

Enforcement of health and safety regulations

It is always instructive to look at the enforcement of health and safety regulations, and in particular, the number of prosecutions in relation to health and safety failures.  A total of 728 were made across the UK in 2014/15, including 72 in Scotland. This represents a rise of 49%, and of course should be welcomed.

However, as encouraging as these figures appear, they need to be seen in the context of the 6931 accidents within the workplace in Scotland reported to the HSE in 2014/15.

While it is unrealistic to expect a prosecution in each case, it is surely not unreasonable to consider that prosecuting in around 1% of cases is not an appropriate level.

Incidentally, there was a fall in the number of enforcement notices being issued. The HSE have made it clear that they will need to concentrate on certain core industries. This limiting of resource is not a sustainable long term strategy to ensure and improve safety for all employees.

UK health and safety in comparison to Europe

The interesting comparison however, particularly this year, is with other European countries.  Much has been written and debated on whether the future of the UK is within or outwith the EU. That debate will only intensify over the next 18 months.  It is important that we are quite clear about the beneficial effect that the European Union, formerly the EEC, has had on workers’ health and safety since the UK joined in 1973.

Work place fatalities in UK since 1974

The statistics speak for themselves. In 1974, the number of employees killed at work in the UK was over 650. The current figure of 92 represents a decrease of around 85%. The number of reported injuries in 1974 was over 330,000 compared to around 75,000 now.

Contrary to what some believe, health and safety was not created by the EEC. The duties of employers to provide a safe workplace, safe work equipment, safe systems of work, and to properly train employees, have been long established in our common law, decades before the integration of Europe.

What Europe did for health and safety

However what the creation of the various communities, starting with the Coal and Steel Community in 1950, followed by the EEC and finally the EU, did was to formalise the recognition of just how important health and safety is within the workplace. The UK had passed the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974.

The emergence of the Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work in 1989, together with the related specific directives and subsequent incorporation into UK law through various sets of regulations, principally the “Six-Pack”, represented a further crucial step in the journey towards increasing the levels of safety in the workplace.

UK fatalities at work fourth lowest in Europe

The UK has a strong record compared with other EU members. In 2012, the latest year for which comparable figures are available, the level of fatalities in the workplace in the UK was the fourth lowest in the EU – only the Netherlands, Greece and Sweden were lower. Similar sized economies varied from Germany at a roughly similar level, to Poland at around 1.5 times higher to Spain at double and France at more than double.

For non-fatal injuries, the UK was mid-table at 13th lowest.

Interestingly, in both categories, the rate of fatalities and non-fatal injuries was higher in both Norway and Switzerland, neither of which, of course, is in the EU.

The drive towards higher standards of safety within workplaces across Europe has undoubtedly been a factor in the improved figures within the UK.

The original thinking of the architects of European integration, Monnet and Schuman, not only envisaged economic union, but saw that an integral part of the process of integration was the adoption of common standards of safety. The relevant part of the original Schuman Declaration of 1950 is worth setting out:

“The task with which this common High Authority will be charged will be that of securing in the shortest possible time the modernization of production and the improvement of its quality; the supply of coal and steel on identical terms to the French and German markets, as well as to the markets of other member countries; the development in common of exports to other countries; the equalization and improvement of the living conditions of workers in these industries.”

Consider this wording. It is clear that the importance of workplace safety to the improvement of general living standards was crucial.

While only one component of the European machine, it is nonetheless a vital one, and which should weigh with us in our consideration of how to view our country’s future involvement with the European Union.

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Gordon Dalyell

Gordon Dalyell, Partner