Workplace accidents in the UK. Is it significant and can we do more?
It’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of employers in the UK are decent bunch of ladies and gents who genuinely care for and cherish their work force. They certainly wouldn’t wish to inflict illness or injury by disregarding health and safety, and this is reflected in the fact that workplace accidents in the UK are among the lowest in Europe.
However, a robust policy of health and safety is often something that takes a back seat when there is the more pressing day to day issues of winning orders and meeting deadlines.
Yet read any local newspaper and there always appears to be an article covering a local business that has been fined thousands of pounds for repeated incidents of dangerous practices, or sadly a business owner or company director jailed for the death of a worker in a tragic accident.
Can we do more to improve the situation?
Let’s try to put some perspective on the situation.
When we hear of or think about workplace accidents, we often think about the construction industry.
The construction industry in the UK is a large and significant employer.
Currently between 2 and 3 million people are engaged in the industry, including housing, utility works, demolition, shop fitting, repair and maintenance, roofing, electrical, plumbing, highways, refurbishment, as well as construction of commercial properties and civil engineering projects.
There are approximately 200,000 companies in the UK involved in or around the construction industry, with the vast majority employing less than 10 people. Yet the figures from accident, illnesses and deaths are still staggering compared to other British industries.
On average 50 workers a year will die in a construction related accident. That’s one worker every week who will leave home in the morning never to return to his or her family.
Over 250,000 workers will suffer serious accidents every year, some of them life changing, and all of them very costly in one way or another.
Thousands of workers will become ill and die every year from breathing in hazardous substances such as construction dust containing harmful silica particulates that cause respiratory diseases.
Over four thousand workers are still dying each year from asbestos related lung diseases. (Maintenance workers forming the largest group. Plumbers, electricians, shop-fitters, joiners etc.)
The most common cause of time off work resulting in lost pay and cost to the employer is from injuries caused by slips, trips and falls, while manual handling injuries leading to muscular skeletal problems are a major cause of lost time.
Fall from height injuries are a significant problem, and the vast majority of injuries are actually caused by falls less than head height.
So who is responsible for safety in the workplace?
We all have our part to play in ensuring that we don’t subject ourselves or others to injury and ill health through our acts at work. And while the responsibility falls to the employer to put controls and measures into place, everybody is required to comply and assist the employer in discharging his own duty as the law requires.
Employees have a duty to act in such a way that is safe and responsible, and this is what every employee signs up to when accepting a job from an employer.
But occupational health and safety doesn’t just apply to the construction industry. It’s relevant to all areas of industry, business and commerce, whether it be a care home, a retail outlet, a technology company, transport, a low risk office or a high risk petrochemical environment.
Is it just about the law?
However, it’s not always that easy. Although a requirement by law, a robust approach to good health and safety can be hindered by influencing factors such as pressure of production, targets, financial constraints or economic downturns.
This in turn can lead to decisions being made to reduce maintenance on machinery, or reduce safety training, or developing safe systems of work for example.
But there are some very powerful incentives to achieve and maintain high standards of health and safety and these are commonly expressed as;
- Moral reasons
- Legal reasons
- Financial reasons.
What is the argument for good health and safety?
We all have a moral duty to ensure that when somebody leaves home for their place of work, they return at the end of the day in at least the same physical and mental condition as when they started the day. This is everybody’s right, and nobody should go to work expecting or accepting that they might be injured, suffer illness or be killed.
Employers have a legal duty to provide safe systems of work, and a safe place of work. This is backed up by our legal system and can be punishable by punitive fines and jail sentences. Again, it also applies to employees to act in a safe and responsible way.
There are significant financial incentives for employers to provide a robust health and safety culture as a reduction in accidents is directly linked to a reduction in financial loss.
This can be financial loss from pay-outs due to negligence, financial loss caused by downtime after an accident (investigation by the HSE, loss of manpower, recruitment, temporary staffing), financial loss due to replacing damaged machinery or equipment involved in an accident, financial loss due to increased insurance premiums, and financial loss of custom from bad press or contractual infringement.
However, there are also many financial positives to be had from a strong health and safety culture.
Business owners can find themselves in demand from like minded customers who actively seek out other companies that meet their high standards, while there is often improved productivity from a workforce that feels valued, safe and included in their well-being.
How responsible does an organisation have to be?
Corporate Responsibility is a buzz phrase that can be easily banded about, but broadly speaking it refers to the way in which organisations manage their core business by adding social, economic and environmental value to produce a sustainable and positive impact on the business and society.
The HSE also play their part in encouraging corporate responsibility so that risks are properly managed and controlled, and as a result encourage organisations to:
> Improve health and safety management systems, thereby reducing ill health and injuries.
> Demonstrate the importance of a robust health and safety policy at board level so that it can be driven from the top all the way down through the organisation.
> Report publicly on health and safety issues within the organisation and be accountable.
It is the belief of the HSE that having effective management of health and safety can lead to:
> Greater employee well-being.
> A greater role in enhancing an organisation’s reputation and staff quality levels.
> Will be financially beneficial to the business.
We all have a role to play in effective health and safety, and for those actively involved in promoting safe working practices it can be a rewarding, interesting and varied role.
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Due to the ever-changing nature of regulations and the law, please visit http://www.hse.gov.uk/ for the very latest information and updates.