Workplace fatalities fall but construction sector remains dangerous

Out-Law News | 22 Jul 2020 | 3:54 pm | 3 min. read

New figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that workplace fatalities in Great Britain fell to an all-time low in 2019/20 – although there was an increase in fatalities in the construction industry.

The HSE report (19 page / 531KB PDF) said 111 workers had died in the 12 months to 31 March 2020, down by 38 deaths compared to the previous year and representing a rate of 0.34 deaths per 100,000 workers.

The HSE said the fall was likely accentuated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy in the last two months of the year. It added that death from occupational disease is not included in the statistics, and therefore Covid-19 infections picked up at work will not be included in future editions of the report.

The construction industry had the largest share of fatalities last year, with 40 workplace deaths. That was an increase from a low of 31 in 2018/19, and was also up on the five-year average of 37 deaths.

The agriculture, forestry and fishing, and the waste and recycling sectors account for the highest number of deaths per 100,000 employed, with a rate of fatal injury some 18 times as high as the average across all industries.

Betts Zoe

Zoe Betts

Legal Director

Enforcement bodies will be keen to ensure that duty-holders look for ever more successful ways to manage key workplace risks and thereby reduce the number of serious incidents and fatalities.

Despite being a relatively small sector in terms of worker numbers, there were five fatal incidents in the waste and recycling sector last year. Meanwhile, deaths in the agriculture sector fell to the lowest level on record last year, with 20 fatalities.

Falls from height continue to account for the most work-related fatalities, with 29 people killed after falling last year. Being struck by a moving vehicle or object accounted for 20 and 18 deaths respectively last year. Together these causes accounted for 60% of workplace fatalities in 2019/20.

As in previous years, fatal injuries to workers are predominately to male workers. In 2019/20, 108 (97%) of all worker fatalities were to male workers, with 27% of fatalities involving those aged over 60, despite the fact that age group accounts for only 10% of the workforce.

The data also shows that 51 members of the public were killed last year as a result of a work-related accident in HSE enforced workplaces, including 33 in the health and social work sector.

Health and safety expert Fiona Cameron of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said despite the overall reduction in fatalities there was no room for complacency.

“Not only are the restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic likely to have had an impact on the figures, there is clear concern that the construction and waste sectors account for a high number of deaths of workers and members of the public,” Cameron said.

Health and safety expert Zoe Betts of Pinsent Masons said: “The long-term downward trend in workplace fatalities has seen the figures halve over the last two decades. Whilst this is to be welcomed, we have seen a plateauing in the statistics in more recent years and enforcement bodies will be keen to ensure that duty-holders look for ever more successful ways to manage key workplace risks and thereby reduce the number of serious incidents and fatalities.

“This is particularly pertinent as businesses return to the workplace, some more swiftly than others, and grapple with the effects of the coronavirus on the workforce, the workplace and methods of work,” Betts said.

Cameron Fiona

Fiona Cameron

Senior Practice Development Lawyer

The UK government has made clear that the HSE will play a key role in ensuring the safety and health of workers as lockdown measures ease so more unannounced inspections should be expected.

“The temptation to cut corners and perhaps compliance resource may loom large for some but the HSE has been at pains throughout to stress that it expects duty holders to abide by their obligations. The UK government has also made clear that the HSE will play a key role in ensuring the safety and health of workers as lockdown measures ease so more unannounced inspections should be expected. It would be naïve to think that inspectors will look only for social distancing measures during such visits,” Cameron said.

Cameron said the statistics would also be likely to inform inspections as regulators seek to drive down workplace fatalities.

“Organisations should be mindful of the figures in reviewing their risk assessments. They must be tailored to the business and workforce, and employers should ensure that suitable mitigation measures are put in place, understood by the workforce and adherence is monitored. A culture of compliance must pervade the organisation if it is not to fall short in its obligations. The consequences of doing so can be catastrophic both in human and economic terms,” Cameron said.