NEWS: Fatalities at work rise against backdrop of Brexit and government cuts

Heavy cuts to HSE’s government funding may have made workplaces less safe and influenced the rise in deaths at work reported for the year 2017/18, the chairman of the British Safety Council has warned. 

144 workers died at work in Great Britain in 2017/18, up 9 fatalities from 2016/17 (35 fatalities, revised down from the provisional, figure of 137), according to HSE’s fatal injuries report issued last week.

It is the biggest jump in the past five-year period, with 147 deaths reported in 2015/16 and 142 fatalities reported at work in 2014/15. There were 136 deaths in 2013/14 and 150 fatalities in 2012/13.

Lawrence Waterman, Chairman of the British Safety Council commented: “This increase in workplace deaths may be the first sign of the effect of years of budget austerity, although the government cuts to health and safety investment have been taking a while to impact on workers.”

“Every workplace death is a tragedy for the person and their families, friends and workmates. The latest rise in deaths at work reported by the HSE undermines the complacent belief that ‘we have the best safety record in the world’ and raises questions about the hollowing out of the HSE’s and local authorities’ ability to inspect workplaces,” he added.

“In every aspect of life, you tend to get what you pay for and our government is paying less money and less attention to workplace safety year on year.”

The over 65s - increase in deaths 

Older workers are particularly at risk at work. Looking at the figures by age breakdown, last year, 30 workers aged 65+ died in 2017/18, a 67% increase compared with five years ago when in 2012/13, 18 workers over 65 were killed at work.

Workers aged 65 die at work at a rate around five times greater than the rate across all ages

The report notes that proportion of fatal injuries to older workers has been “steadily increasing in recent years” with the increase in the most recent year “particularly large.”

Workers aged 60-64 also have a rate more than double the all ages rate of deaths, and workers aged 65 and over a rate around five times greater than the all ages rate.

Self-employed – an at risk group

Self-employed workers are another group disproportionately vulnerable at work, with the rate of fatal injuries to employees at 0.38 per 100,000 workers compared with 0.84 for the rate for their self-employed friends, when looking at the period 2013/14 - 2017/18.

There were 44 self-employed workers who died in 2017/18 compared with 100 employees. Most of the deaths are in agriculture (44% of self-employed fatalities) and construction (30%).  

However, unlike older workers, the number of deaths has not increased. Self-employed deaths make up 30% of the total fatalities for 2017/18, broadly in line with the numbers for the past four-year average since 2014/15, at 29% of the total number.

Fall from height the biggest cause of death 

Around three-quarters of fatal injuries in both 2017/18 and the combined five-year period 2013/14-2017/18 were accounted for by just five different accident kinds.

The biggest cause of death was a fall from height (35), with being struck by a moving vehicle (26) and struck by a moving object (23) the next biggest causes of death at work.

These three main causes of fatal injury have accounted for over half of all fatal injuries each year since at least 2001/02, says the report.

Lawrence Waterman said that the current political turmoil was an added challenge to protecting workers today: “The government is in a state of Brexit paralysis, which is why it is essential that the British Safety Council joins forces with other organisations to achieve our vision of work that doesn’t kill, injure or harm anyone but instead enhances their wellbeing.

“The fatal accident statistics are a real disappointment after years of improving our performance in the UK. However, instead of being disheartened, we shall campaign even more vigorously to make workplaces more healthy and safe. That is the least we should do as a memorial to the 144 people who died last year.”

The report has explained the change as a 'possible...natural variation in figures': "In statistical terms the number of fatalities has remained broadly level in recent years – the average annual number of workers killed at work over the five years 2013/14-2017/18p is 141."

It says that rates of fatal injury are more helpful when considering trends over time, as the rate accounts for changes in employment numbers between years. Looking at the rate, there is a 'long term downward trend' until 2012/13, after which the rate has been 'broadly flat'.

The HSE data covers deaths reported to the HSE, local authorities and the Office of Rail and Road that are judged to be reportable under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurences Regulations (RIDDOR).

Data is provisional. The revised (finalised) figures for fatal injuries can go down as well as up, by up to +/-3% on finalisation for fatal injuries to workers.

The change from provisional to final usually reflects more up-to-date information following the detailed investigations of these incidents, but also Regulation 6 of RIDDOR covers situations where someone dies of their injuries within a year of their accident.

A fuller assessment of work related ill-health and injuries, drawing on HSE’s full range of data sources, will be provided as part of the annual Health and Safety Statistics release on 31 October 2018.