On 22 November 2023 the HSE published its annual summary of health and safety statistics for the UK. Each year this detailed analysis, which covers all industries and the full spectrum of UK workplaces, provides an opportunity to consider emerging trends and identify the key health, safety, and wellbeing challenges that employers are likely to face in the coming year.

The most sobering statistic, as with every year, is that in the year to March 2023 135 people lost their lives at work. There is no doubt that this is 135 deaths too many and that clearly there is work still to be done. There is, however, cause for optimism because the UK continues to have one of the lowest rates of work-related fatalities in Europe – our rate of fatal injury is half the European average, and a fifth of the rate in France.

Industry Trends

The Energy sector's continuing focus on health and safety is reflected in the fact that oil and gas exploration and production operations produce too few instances of workplace injury or ill-health to allow a reliable comparison to be made with other industry sectors. Long may that trend continue.

As with previous years, the sectors facing the greatest challenge in terms of workplace injuries are Construction, Accommodation, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing. The latter is, of course, of particular relevance to businesses in the City and Shire.

The fatality rate in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing is 21 times higher than the all-industry average, and of the 27 fatalities in the last year, nearly half were caused by being struck by a moving vehicle or by another moving, falling, or flying object. There is no doubt that this is a sector which regularly deals with high-risk operations, where the elimination, or even reduction, of risk is more challenging. That having been said, as evidenced by the data for offshore operations, a material reduction in serious injuries and fatalities is possible even in the highest risk operations. Regular audit and review of risk assessments, policies and procedures for vehicle movements and systems of work for hazardous operations is both an obvious starting point, and a legal requirement.

Workplace Injury

The level of workplace injury continues to show a downward trend across the UK, and the incidence of all types of injury is now at, or below, pre-pandemic levels. However, almost 50% of all workplace injuries in the UK are caused by slips, trips and falls, or by handling, lifting and carrying. By their nature, these types of injury are likely to be more common but of less severity that some of the other categories for which the HSE collects data. That does not mean they can be ignored or de-prioritised. When the data shows that these are the most likely causes of injury to staff, customers, or the wider public there is no excuse for not taking them seriously. Any business can be prosecuted for a breach of health and safety law, even if that breach only results in a minor injury or no injury at all.

Work-related ill-health

The data on work-related ill-health was, inevitably, affected by the coronavirus pandemic meaning it was difficult to identify reliable trends. The statistics for the year to March 2023 are the first which can be said to be unaffected, at least to a material extent, by the pandemic. It is therefore interesting to note that the rates of both self-reported ill-health and working days lost to illness remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.

What is the reason for that? It is not easy to answer that from a review of the statistics alone. Are we less healthy as a nation then we were pre-pandemic? That seems unlikely. What seems more likely, and entirely reasonable, is that as a nation and as employers we have become far more accepting of the need to take time off when suffering ill-health – whether physical or mental. Gone, quite rightly, are the days when staff were expected to reach for the cough sweets and work through the inevitable seasonal bugs, or where someone struggling with their mental health because of issues at work would fear a backlash for taking time off to look after their wellbeing. The pandemic has made it clear that that this is not socially acceptable.

Even if it was previously socially acceptable, it has never been legally compliant. The fundamental purpose of the UK's health and safety laws is to protect the health and wellbeing, both physical and mental, of employees, as well as their safety. The law has not changed, but perhaps the pandemic has made UK employers more compliant. Of course, the way businesses react to their employees' ill-health is important, but the focus must turn to tackling the underlying causes of that ill-health. Here, the HSE's statistics make it clear that there is far more to be done. 31.5 million working-days were lost to ill-health last year, with new cases of work-related illness costing UK companies £13.1 billion. That does not make welcome reading, for employers and employees alike.