The work environment is becoming much more complicated. At its simplest, companies have employees who all work at a company facility. This is the easiest structure to regulate and monitor when it comes to all aspects of employment law, including health and safety.
The modern workplace is much more complicated than this, however. The people who work for companies today fall into a wide range of different categories. Here are just some examples:
- Employees who work at their employer’s premises, such as factory operatives in a manufacturing facility or retail assistants in a shop.
- Employees who work remotely all or most of the time, such as repair and installation technicians/operatives who work in the field servicing their employer’s customers or social workers who visit people in their homes.
- Employees who work from home some of the week and from their employer’s office for the rest of the week.
- People who work for a separate company who has been contracted to complete a particular job. Examples include people working for IT companies installing a new system in an office or engineering companies installing new equipment in manufacturing facilities.
- Self-employed people contracted to do a particular job such as an electrician brought in to repair a problem in a company’s office or a bookkeeper who works on a self-employed basis for multiple clients.
- A person who is legally self-employed but who works exclusive or primarily for a single company such as a taxi driver or delivery driver.
- Self-employed people who work for a company who has been contracted to complete a job at the premises of a different company such as a self-employed IT contractor working for a tech company who has been contracted to install an IT system in a manufacturing company.
The above reflects part of the reality of modern work environments and shows the complexity that often exists.
Is the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) keeping pace with this highly fluid nature of modern workplaces? Is the guidance and advice it provides relevant to workers’ real-life experiences?
Do the statistics the HSE reports give us enough information in relation to how people really work? Is the HSE properly monitoring health and safety practices when companies operate outside the norm of an employer with employees working in the employer’s premises?
The Question of Contractors
When the HSE reports fatality and accident rates, it offers several statistical breakdowns. This includes breaking down the stats by industry as well as distinguishing between employees and those who are self-employed.
It doesn’t, however, offer any information on the rates of serious or fatal injury in relation to contractors. Specifically, the statistics offered by the HSE don’t give any indication of how many people are involved in an accident at work that causes death or serious injury when the accident occurs at the location of a company other than the one they work for.
Here are two examples to illustrate this:
- A person working for a small contracting company completing water mains installation at a remote location. If that person is seriously injured in the course of this work, the injury is recorded as an employed person working in the utilities industry. There is nothing about the fact the person works for a contractor on behalf of a water company.
- A self-employed engineer working as an independent contractor at a large manufacturing operation who is killed in an accident while at the manufacturing plant. In this case, the HSE will record it as a self-employed fatality.
Why Is the Above Important?
According to the HSE, the use of contractors rather than employees in many industries poses a health and safety challenge. Other experts agree, highlighting the increasingly fragmented nature of many sectors and industries.
An example comes from the HSE’s sector plan for health and safety in the utilities sector. Under the section headed “Current position”, the HSE states:
“… there are areas where the health and safety system is less mature and industry fragmentation and greater use of contractors pose a threat.”
Another example comes from the HSE’s Construction Sector Strategy 2012-2015. It highlights the following issue for large construction projects:
“Complex subcontract relationships may lead to the breakdown of communications and a lack of co-operation between workers and / or teams.”
Finally, the sector strategy for the electricity sector identifies industry fragmentation and the increasing use of subcontractors as being one of the five main challenges the sector faces.
If the use of contractors, whether they are companies or self-employed individuals, is such a health and safety challenge in many industries, why is the HSE not doing a deeper analysis of serious injury and fatality rates among these workers?
Furthermore, there is actually nothing in the HSE’s current statistics to back up the claim that greater use of contractors in an industry poses “a threat”. Is that assertion true?
If it is true, is it because contractors have lower health and safety standards? Is it because they take greater risks to get the job done faster, ensuring they keep the contract? Or, is it because the companies ultimately paying them are failing in their duty of care?
What if the statistics tell us something completely different? What if the statistics tell us that fewer people working for, or as, contractors are killed or seriously injured at work? What if employees working for the organisation ultimately responsible for the work are most at risk? Why would this be the case? Do contractors enforce higher standards of health and safety for exactly the same reason as mentioned above – to ensure they keep the contract? Are directly employed individuals more likely to cut health and safety corners than their counterparts working for, or as, contractors?
Health and safety professionals are likely to have opinions on all the questions above. However, looking at the country overall across all industries, we simply don’t know what is happening
Would it not be useful to know how many workers are dying or being seriously injured at a location that is owned or is the responsibility of a third-party company? What is the scale of this issue compared to workers in other situations? What are the reasons?
With information like this, health and safety resources –from health and safety professionals, from companies, and from the HSE – could be better targeted.
What About the Self-Employed?
There is a potential cause for concern in relation to the HSE’s approach to self-employed workers as well, not least because self-employed people account for nearly 15 percent of the UK workforce.
That’s a significant number but there is an even deeper concern when you look at health and safety statistics in relation to the self-employed. This is because one-third of fatal injuries at work in the UK are to self-employed workers. This applies whether you look at a single year (2017/18, for example), or over a longer period (for example, the five-year period from 2013/14 to 2017/18).
As a result, self-employed workers are more than twice as likely to suffer a fatal injury at work than people who are employees.
Most self-employed people suffering a fatal injury at work are from one of two sectors – agriculture or construction. Here are the stats for the five-year period 2013/14 to 2017/18:
- Agriculture – 44 percent
- Construction – 30 percent
- Other sectors – 26 percent
According to the HSE, self-employed people have similar responsibilities in regard to health and safety as companies do. In other words, they are responsible for health and safety in their business.
However, there is no statistical information that tells us how many self-employed people are being killed or seriously injured while working at a location that is the responsibility of a third-party company. This is a crucial statistic to understand.
Furthermore, there is an apparent lack of focus on the self-employed at the HSE, particularly in relation to giving companies advice on what they should do to ensure self-employed people are safe while working on the company’s behalf.
An example comes from the HSE website. Under the section “How to control risk at work”, there is a sub-section titled “Your workers” where there is specific guidance for companies in relation to various different types of worker they might have. In fact, the HSE lists nine different types of worker:
- New and expectant mothers
- Agency/temporary workers
- New to the job and young workers
- Migrant workers
- Lone workers
- Transient workers
- People with disabilities
There is one group of workers who are conspicuously missing from the above list, however – the self-employed.
It could be argued that self-employed people come under contractors, but there is a massive difference between a contractor who could have 10, 20, or even 100 employees and a single self-employed individual.
Workplace fatality rates in the UK have plateaued, with the numbers remaining stubbornly static. Understanding the nuances and influence of self-employed workers and contractors, particularly when working at a facility or location that is the responsibility of another company, may not be the only solution.
However, given the concern that most health and safety professionals have about some contracting arrangements, and the fatality rates among self-employed workers, it’s an area that is certainly worth exploring further.