Breaking Through The Statistical Plateau

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working at height

This is a difficult post with more questions than answers. Over time we’ll work to try to answer these questions. Some are just a matter of research, some are more philosophical and much more difficult to answer.

The basic challenge is breaking through the statistical plateau that is the Great Britain worker fatality rate. For the past five or six years this has been broadly flat at around 0.45 fatalities per 100,000 workers having fallen from a level close to 2.0 per 100,000 workers back in the 1980s.

The recently released statistics from the HSE show the 2018/19 rate to be 0.45, exactly the same as the average over the past five years. However, the actual number of fatalities was 147 (vs. 141 the previous year) and the associated headlines included MPs call for action to tackle increase in deaths at work.

Are things really getting worse or were there just more people working in Great Britain in 2018/19 vs. 2017/18? Should we be alarmed? If so, what do we do to fix it?

This blog has long questioned how we break through the statistical plateau that is the GB worker fatality rate. Is it technology that will enable the breakthrough? Is it more measurement? Less measurement? Is it more of a people issue as posited by Melvin Sandell and covered in our post last week on UK Cycle to Work Day?

Before looking at some of the remedies suggested (here and elsewhere), let’s just go back to the statistics and associated headlines.

One of the difficulties with the statistics is commenting on what are (in the case of 2018/19) actually provisional data that won’t be finalised until July 2020. That means that previous analysis (using RIDDOR spreadsheets) that we undertook in the past was based on provisional data for those years (e.g. 2017/18). In turn, that means we need to go back through our folders of RIDDOR stats and make sure they’re all using the actual data for each year against which we can compare this year’s provisional data.

When we’ve done that I think we’ll find that the fatality rate is actually creeping up again. It’s interesting that the HSE chose to compare the 2018/19 fatality rate with the average of the past five years (including 2018/19). We’ll take an action to update the actual data and see what’s really happening year on year.

The headlines focused on ‘falls from height’ as the major contributor to 2018/19 fatalities and showing a dramatic increase to 40 from the 35 fatalities of 2017/18. But, how are the individual causes of fatalities trending over time? Is there any relevant insight that we can extract there? Have the individual causes of fatalities plateaued in the same way that overall fatality rates have? Another action for us.

An All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was set-up in 2017 to look at Working at Height and published their report Staying Alive in February of this year. One of the major recommendations that came out of this report was for enhanced reporting through RIDDOR “… one measure in particular that would assist industry attempts to improve practice would be enhanced inspection and reporting. There was broad consensus among respondents that this measure would help instruct, direct and encourage improvements in working at height…”

Further, Peter Bennett, MD of PASMA and an industry expert at working at height said, “we know that data collected does not accurately represent the true scale of ‘near misses’ in the workplace which is why we are calling for enhanced reporting methods, and an independent body who would confidentially collect data to inform industry and Government.”

Both the APPG and Mr. Bennett call for more data – better inspections and reporting – among other recommendations. The emphasis on near-misses, in particular, seems to be at odds with newer safety philosophies such as Safety Differently but we’ve long espoused a combination of Heinrich and Dekker as bringing the best of both worlds to the challenge of breaking through the statistical plateau.

Why does the world need to be in one camp or another? Perhaps, as Cialdini puts it, “sealed within the walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.”

Let’s end with the philosophical while we go crunch some numbers…

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