Health and safety at work: a British success story?

Today is World Day for Safety and Health at Work.  Too many people leave home each day to go to work, never to return.  Looking at the ILO website, the period between 2010 and 2012 saw around 20,000 fatal occupational injuries each year – that’s nearly 70 a day.  And bear in mind there are many missing observations.  Even where data are reported, they may well be incomplete.  The annual death toll is in four figures in Japan, Korea and the USA (nearly 5,000).  The last data for China are from as far back as 2002, when almost 15,000 fatal injuries were recorded.

Seen in this light – and not as an excuse for complacency – we’re entitled to regard workplace health and safety as a British success story.  The most reliable data for long-term comparisons are fatal injuries because HSE and other safety authorities think just about all fatal accidents are reported (unlike non-fatal injuries, even though there is a statutory requirement to report these too).  The chart below shows how the number of fatalities to employees and the self-employed has fallen by nearly four-fifths in the forty years since the current system of regulation came into force.

The spike in 1988/89 is due to the Piper Alpha disaster which took the lives of 167 offshore workers, the biggest loss of workers in a single accident since 1934.  The chart excludes data on members of the public killed in work accidents because, for much of the period, these figures cannot be isolated from the (much larger) number of people killed in collisions with trains (whether accidents or suicides).  All the data here exclude road traffic accidents.

This downwards trend is less pronounced, but still evident, in broader measures of work-related injury and ill-health.  The chart below presents annual estimates of the average number of days lost per worker from injuries and illnesses caused or made worse by work.  These are taken from the Labour Force Survey and hence reflect people’s own judgements about what made them ill.

The table below shows that the UK is one of Europe’s star performers.  Measures of health and safety management and outcomes both show the UK consistently out-performing the EU average, often by a large margin.

No doubt there are differences between countries in the requirements placed on employers, how seriously employers take their obligations, and employees’ understanding of health and safety risks.  More prosperous economies also tend to be safer: less of the workforce is employed in high risk industries like agriculture and they benefit from up-to-date capital equipment, work premises and management thinking.  More information on health and safety in Europe can be found in our European policy briefing.

The UK has also benefited from a stable and effective system of regulation.  It is more than forty years since the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act was passed but much of its underpinning architecture is still present including a tripartite governance structure (originally the Health and Safety Commission, now the HSE Board) that sits between the regulators and Ministers; and a largely risk-based approach to enforcement that pushes employers to do as much as they reasonably can, rather than requiring the undemanding or the impossible.  Although specific health and safety issues have at times been highly controversial, such as the debate over whether to require Automatic Train Protection on all trains, health and safety has not become a political football in the way that employment legislation has at times (an example of the latter would be the way that the qualification period for unfair dismissal has gone up and down according to the political complexion of the government).

We still have the periodic media stories about “’elf and safety” and the HSE have catalogued no less than 395 health and safety myths.  Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that health and safety legislation is best thought of as a background constraint on small firms that only becomes a significant barrier to growth for a very small proportion (like employment legislation in general).  The regular BIS Small Business Survey gives respondents a list of issues and asks them to choose the ones they regard as obstacles to the success of their business.  "Regulations" were mentioned by 49% of small firms with employees in 2014, down from 53% in 2012.  "The economy" was most frequently mentioned (59% but down from 78% in 2012).  However, when asked to choose the main obstacle to the success of their business, just 6% chose regulations, down from 8% in 2012.  Within this group, 12% specifically mentioned health and safety regulation and 10% mentioned employment regulation – in other words, less than 1% of small employers see either form of regulation as the most important obstacle to success.

The general duty on employers in the 1974 Act refers to their health, safety and welfare.  One could argue that government and regulators have adopted a limited interpretation of "welfare", focusing on the provision of welfare facilities (like the pioneering band of welfare officers that set up the CIPD).  For example, during my period working at the HSE in the mid-1990s, the main welfare measure enacted was the requirement for construction sites to have portaloos, important for those working on those sites, but quite specific.

The ILO have chosen work-related stress as their priority theme for the day this year.  In the UK, psycho-social risks, such as stress, have tended to be seen as an occupational health issue rather than as a welfare or well-being issue.  This cautious approach to welfare might be part of the reason why health and safety regulation hasn’t become a political football.  Who defines "welfare", how you define it, the steps necessary to achieve it and whether state action can make a difference to it (for good or ill) are highly political questions.

Yet the latest data from the HSE, for 2014/15, show that 440,000 people say they suffer from stress, depression or anxiety that has been caused or made worse by work.  This is one area where there is no evidence of a downwards trend.  The chart below, using the averaged data for the three years 2009/10 to 2011/12, breaks these statistics down by cause (according to the employee).

In nearly half of all cases, employees said workload was the main cause – too much work, too many deadlines, too much responsibility.  The second most commonly mentioned cause was a lack of support from management.  As discussed in a previous Megatrends report on work intensity, the factors that can make demanding jobs become unhealthily stressful are well known and largely in management’s control: manage workloads sensibly; give employees a sense of control over their situation and their job; ask employees for their views and listen to them; and make sure employees know there are people they can turn to for support.

The HSE Management Standards provide sound guidance to employers but only 22% of employers responding to our 2015 Absence Management Survey said they used them to help manage stress in the workplace.

If we are to see better management of psycho-social risks within the workplace, it may be worth looking at how the issue is approached elsewhere.  The Danish Working Environment Authority makes psycho-social risks an explicit part of its inspections and also provides some funding for employers wishing to improve the work environment.  CIPD has said (repeatedly) that policy-making in the UK needs a stronger and more holistic focus on the workplace in order to improve our productivity. Stress isn’t just distressful and debilitating, it’s a waste of past investment and future potential. Let’s keep that in mind - while not forgetting that, in the time it took you to read this blog, it’s all too likely that someone else won’t be going home after work today.

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