UK Health & Safety – How Are We Really Doing?

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety NewsLeave a Comment

uk health & safety - what's really going on?

With the recent release of the provisional figures for fatal injuries arising from accidents at work in Great Britain 2017 and being a month on from the awful disaster at Grenfell Tower, it seemed appropriate to take a moment to review the state of UK Health & Safety. What do the statistics tell us? What does the behaviour of the current legislature tell us?

Just for clarification, the HSE fatality data is for Great Britain only and new sentencing guidelines are solely for England and Wales but we’ll use the ‘UK’ broadly to discuss the state of health and safety in these islands.

The best thing to say about the current sentencing guidelines is that they are inconsistent. Tougher, then softer, tougher again, then [recently] weakly implemented in the courts (and this all pre-Grenfell).

The new sentencing guidelines for health & safety related cases, introduced in February 2016, included new considerations including culpability and risk of harm. The greater the culpability and the greater the risk of harm, the tougher the sentence.

But on June 1, 2017 the guidelines were amended downwards with reduced sentences for guilty pleas. Was this an effort to put court time and cost ahead of the stiffer sentences introduced only 16 months earlier?

Currently undergoing a consultation phase through October 10th, 2017 is an increase in jail time for gross negligence manslaughter (with health & safety cases singled out for increased jail terms). This is expected to come into force for sentences imposed from December 2018.

Then on June 7th, 2017, a court ruled in favour of Tata Steel who had appealed a £1.98M fine imposed under the new sentencing guidelines and won. The fine was reduced by 25% based on the appeal court’s judgement that the likelihood of harm (from Tata Steel’s actions that actually resulted in harm) was less than originally adjudicated. Tata Steel are £0.5M better off but what signal does this send? Had the appeal court decision been a week or two later (post-Grenfell) would the same decision have been reached? How will the court of public opinion influence both sentencing guidelines and their implementation in future?

Amidst the seemingly weekly toughening and softening of sentencing, the latest provisional numbers were published for fatal injuries arising from accidents at work, of which there were 137 in 2016/17 – down from 147 in the 2015/16 period. (Note: these numbers are Great Britain only).

There is no question that the annual number of fatalities is down, way down, from the mid-200s of just a decade ago. And the rate per 100,000 workers is also down, from 0.46 in 2015/16 to 0.43 in this past year. Both are good, but not grounds for complacency. Indeed the number of fatalities has now ‘levelled off’ which is not good enough.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The 137 fatalities exclude the public, of which there were 92 fatalities in 2016/17. So the headline figure of 137 is really 229. The 92 fatalities exclude railway suicides as well as patient and service deaths in the health and social care sector (both of which were included in the statistics for earlier years) and excluding all railway and health and social care fatalities yields little in the way of real trends in public fatalities over time.

The figures for next year (2017/2018) are likely to include those tragically killed in the Grenfell fire (currently about 80 in total). The HSE report lists exclusions including:

  • Fatal accidents from work-related road collisions;
  • Fatal accidents involving workers travelling by air or sea;
  • Fatalities to members of the armed forces on duty at the time of accident;
  • Fatal injuries at work due to ‘natural causes’, often heart attacks or strokes, unless brought on by trauma due to the accident.

Far from a ‘levelling off’ at the reported 5-year average of 142 (per the HSE report), the provisional number of fatalities for 2016/17 is 229 with that number likely to exceed 300 in 2017/18.

Add in the 5,000+ annual deaths from asbestos-related diseases and maybe Hugh Robertson’s accusation of ‘shocking complacency’ can be broadened from the HSE’s PIR of CAR 2012 to the UK’s attitude to health and safety in general?

Let’s hope that Grenfell changes all and we see consistency from our legislature as well as from those implementing sentencing guidelines. We continue working, as I’m sure you do, to ensure that one fatality is one too many and that that number levels off at zero.

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