Today is World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2021. Perhaps now is a good time to reflect on how we’re doing in the UK with respect to our worker safety performance.
Those in the health and safety industry and everyone with an interest in minimising workplace fatalities are eagerly waiting on the next official report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The report will cover the year 2020/21, although eagerly waiting might not be completely accurate for everyone. Nervously or anxiously waiting might be more appropriate.
Why? The figures in 2019/20 showed a significant drop in workplace fatalities. This led to the obvious but hard to answer question – what is going on?
Did the drop in workplace fatalities in 2019/20 indicate the beginning of a downward trend, reversing the previously frustratingly flat trend of workplace fatality numbers staying roughly the same year on year? Or was the reduction in workplace fatalities a statistical fluctuation, or perhaps the result of Covid-19? We initially covered this following the release of the provisional 2019/20 HSE stats last July.
Where are we now as the 2020/21 period has concluded? We don’t yet have the official stats, but what should we expect?
What We Do Know?
Let’s start with the facts: 111 people died while at work in 2019/20. That is the lowest figure on record and represented a 22 percent reduction on the five-year average.
The construction industry had the most fatalities, followed by agriculture, forestry, and fishing (20), manufacturing (15), and transport & storage (11).
In the construction industry, falls from height accounted for nearly half of the workplace fatalities that occurred. Also, the number of construction industry fatalities in 2019/20 was up on the five-year average, bucking the overall trend.
So, while every fatality is tragic, the overall picture was mostly positive.
What We Don’t Know
The key information we don’t yet have is whether the reduction in workplace fatalities was because of a health and safety breakthrough, a statistical anomaly, or because of Covid-19. Specifically, the impact of restrictions placed on businesses due to Covid-19.
What We Might Know
There are several key reports, tables, and statistical analyses that we can look at to try and get a better understanding of where we are today with workplace fatalities based on what we know from the 2019/20 figures and other sources of information.
The Impact of Covid-19 on Non-Fatal Workplace Injuries
In November last year, the HSE produced a report on the potential impact of Covid-19 on statistical data sources. The aim of the report was to determine whether Covid-19 was the main driver for the change in HSE statistics in 2019/2020.
While the report doesn’t focus on fatalities, it did look at RIDDOR-reported non-fatal injuries. This can give us an indication of the potential impact on fatal injuries. The HSE report found that non-fatal injuries were likely to have fallen in 2019/20 even without the Covid-19 pandemic.
To assess this, the report authors looked at month-by-month figures. Overall, non-fatal injuries were down almost 5,000 in 2019/20 compared to 2018/19. However, if you look at the figures for the first 11 months of the year (i.e., when there were no Covid-19 restrictions in place), non-fatal injuries were down by 2,000. In other words, non-fatal injuries were down before Covid-19 hit.
There was then a big drop in the final month of the year to achieve the 5k reduction, so it is reasonable to assume that Covid-19 did have a major impact on the final figure. That said, it is also reasonable to assume that the figures would have been down anyway. Not by as much, but down, nonetheless.
The exact conclusion of the HSE was: “… the emergence of COVID-19 does not appear to be the sole driver of the fall in employer reported injuries in 2019/20, although it is likely to have accentuated the overall scale of the annual decrease”.
The Impact of Covid-19 on Fatal Workplace Injuries
What about fatal injuries? The HSE did a similar analysis, albeit less detailed, which it reported on in July last year as part of its Workplace fatal injuries in Great Britain, 2020 report. In that report, it compared fatal injuries to workers in Great Britain in 2019/20 with the previous year and the five-year average.
Those comparisons showed significant reductions in February and March, indicating a Covid-19 impact, i.e., it is likely that Covid-19 accounts for at least part of the reduction in workplace fatalities in 2019/20.
However, the comparisons also showed there might have been a reduction in the number of fatalities anyway. Apart from January 2020 where the number of workplace fatalities was higher than the previous year and the five-year average, most months pre-Covid-19 showed a reduction in both comparisons.
Downward Trend or Statistical Anomaly
The HSE doesn’t just report fatality stats annually. It also provides ongoing figures in its Statistical count of in-year workplace deaths tables. These tables give us much more up to date information as they currently include figures from April to December 2020.
A word of caution, however – these figures are provisional, so are subject to revision. However, work has been done to ensure they only include RIDDOR reportable deaths where the relevant authority is the HSE. This means fatal accidents at work that don’t fall within this remit (such as road traffic accidents) have been removed.
So, what do these figures show? Here are the headlines: 94 workers suffered fatal injuries between April and December 2020. This is 22 percent up on the same period in 2019/20 where 77 workers suffered fatal injuries. It is slightly down on the five-year average of 96 workplace fatalities in the same period.
What if we break the figures down to the industries that account for the greatest number of workplace fatalities? This is what the provisional figures tell us:
- Construction – 26 fatal workplace injuries (two fatalities fewer than 2019/20 and the same as the five-year average)
- Agriculture, forestry, and fishing – 24 fatal workplace injuries (41 percent up on 2019/20 and 14 percent up on the five-year average)
- Manufacturing – 14 fatal workplace injuries (one less fatality than 2019/20 and one more than the five-year average).
Should we conclude that the significant reduction in workplace fatalities in 2019/20 was a standard statistical fluctuation rather than the beginning of a downward trend? Possibly. Could there be a downward trend, albeit one that is significantly more modest than the 2019/20 figures suggested? That is possible too.
Will Covid-19 have less of an impact on the 2020/21 figures than it appeared to have had in February and March 2020 during the last reporting period? That is possible also, although it is important to point out that the nature of the restrictions on businesses changed throughout the period covered by these figures, and they changed again in the months after.
Specifically, there were fewer restrictions throughout many of the months from April to December 2020 compared to the final part of the full 2020/21 reporting period, i.e., January to March 2021 when lockdown restrictions were at their most restrictive. This could mean the impact of Covid-19 might be more significant when we get the final figures than these provisional, incomplete figures indicate.
What Can We Conclude?
We are still in a situation where there are more questions than answers. This is understandable as HSE figures on workplace fatalities for 2020/21 have not been released and won’t be for a few more months.
Also, we are only just coming out of the latest lockdown, and we don’t have any real knowledge of the impact that will have. While GDP has been down due to the pandemic, some industries have continued significant amounts of activity despite the restrictions. The construction sector is a good example. Also, many homeowners looked to use the lockdown period to make improvements, and building owners took advantage of empty buildings to complete maintenance and improvement works.
Are there any conclusions to speak of? We might be seeing the tentative beginning of workplace fatalities starting to fall. That is a positive, but it is not time to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Far from it, in fact.
We have to be open to the fact that 2020/21 and future years could possibly show no such downward trend. We also don’t know what the impact will be of the economy fully opening up again when the pandemic ends.
Plus, even if the stats show any sort of downward trend, we can’t become complacent as one workplace fatality is too many. While achieving zero workplace fatalities in the UK over a year is likely to be impossible, we all have a responsibility to continue working to get as close to that goal as possible, whatever the stats are telling us.
World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2021 is as good a motivator as any in ensuring that people work safely and are safe at work.If You Like This Post, Please Share It!