Why Did Workplace Fatality Rates Increase by 40%?

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety StatisticsLeave a Comment

clarity on health and safety comparative statistics

In our last post, Workplace Fatalities – Behind the Headlines, we posited that the significant drop in workplace fatality rates in 2019/20 was not an outlier and that the sharp increase of 2020/21 (back to the previous levels of the last decade) would prove to be the outlier.

Of course, when the HSE announce the 2021/22 figures in July of 2022, we’ll have a better idea of whether the decrease experienced in 2019/20 will prove to be the new high water mark from which the industry can continue to innovate and make further reductions in fatality rates over time.

For that to be the case, 2021/22 and future years will need to be in the range of 0.35 workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers rather than the 0.45 fatality rate of the prior decade (with the exception of 2019/20). This assumes 2021/22 will be largely free of the pandemic restrictions of 2020/21 which was not the case in Q1. Further, with instances of Covid-19 resulting from occupational exposure now reportable under RIDDOR, 2021/22 may be skewed higher making year-on-year comparison difficult. Regardless…

Why do we feel 2020/21 will prove to be the outlier? Well, despite less hours being worked, more workers lost their lives (compared to 2019/20). Indeed, if we look at the fatality rate per 100 million hours worked (as opposed to the rate per 100,000 workers) then 2020/21 had a 40% higher fatality rate than 2019/20. This has to be an exception, an outlier, but it is difficult to be definitive in explaining why this spike occurred.

Was it due to the introduction of new methods of working to deal with the pandemic overshadowing traditional workplace safety practices?

Perhaps it was caused more by a personal reaction to the pandemic where, in the face of one all-encompassing mortal threat, individuals became oblivious to other risks?

Or perhaps, in the face of more rules, safety suffered?

The reality is likely to be a combination of all three.

Studies have shown that we become more conformist and respectful of convention when there is [even] the threat of infectious disease. Further, that we become more morally vigilant when we feel the threat of disease.

In those circumstances, we value invention and innovation less, and judge those failing to conform harshly – those seen to be breaking one set of rules are more likely to break the rules related to the infectious disease. In short, obeying the rules becomes paramount yet we all know that no process is perfect and human intervention is required to provide the oil for the process engine.

We’ve previously discussed the correlation between societal trust, the amount of rules and safety outcomes and concluded that more trust correlates with fewer rules and better safety outcomes. Connecting the dots to then say that the pandemic has, hopefully temporarily, driven us to a rules-based culture detrimental to safety outcomes is not too much of a stretch, as evidenced by what we believe to be the outlier that was the 2020/21 workplace fatality rate.

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