· 12 min read · Features

Health and Safety: Progress report - Dangerous work

Published:

The Health and Safety at Work Act has stopped the workplace being the dangerous place it used to be but progress has slowed down over recent years.

It was 35 years ago this month that Parliament famously decreed all companies had a duty to 'ensure so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees', when the Health & Safety at Work Act (HSWA) was born. Seldom has a piece of employment law been more prescient. In its inaugural year, there were 651 workplace fatalities, a figure that placed Britain among the worst of the industrial nations for deaths at work. By last year (2007/8), this number had dropped to 229.

In January, almost as if Government was marking the anniversary, the Health & Safety (Offences) Act was ratified. Three decades on, this newest law raises the maximum fines the courts can impose for breaches of health and safety from £5,000 to £20,000 and broadens the range of offences for which directors and managers can be imprisoned. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (see later) heralded its arrival as a 'momentous day' - a bold measure that keeps health and safety squarely on the agenda - but how proud should the HR community be about its progress in making the workplace a safer place to be 35 years on?

Room for improvement

Despite a sea-change in awareness about health and safety, official statistics of the incidences of workplace ill-health and even death still leave room for improvement. There have been high-profile successes: during Terminal 5's five-year building period two people died when you would normally expect the figure to be nearer 15 on a project of that length; and in the construction of the Millennium Dome there were only 15 three-day reportable injuries between 1997 and 1999. Nevertheless deaths at work have remained stubbornly consistent (see, below). Last year's 229 is on a par with the trend of the past 10 years. The figures for 2001 were actually up 34% on the previous year; this led the TUC to launch a campaign in 2002 to rid Britain of what it called the 'disgraceful' number of work-related deaths. It claims around 10,000 employees die each year from occupational causes including heart disease caused by stress. Since the campaign started, workplace fatality numbers have not changed significantly.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been tracking improvements (or not) since June 2000 (see inteview, right, and it does not like what it sees. It introduced its Revitalising Health and Safety strategy, which set three national targets to reach by 2010: that fatalities and major injuries should fall by 10% on 2000 figures; that the incidence of work-related ill-health falls by 20%; and the number of working days lost per employee from work- related injury and ill health drops by 30%. In its November 2007 report, which looked at the progress made on these targets, for ill-health and working days lost, HSE concluded the UK was not on track to meet these targets.

According to Steve Bailey, president of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), much has evidently changed in the past 35 years, but he says he is worried the figures seem to have reached a plateau. "The past decade reveals a definite levelling-off. Dangerous workplaces are less overt, so many think the problem has gone away, but this is not the case." With the TUC claim in mind that around 10,000 deaths occur from occupational causes, including heart disease caused by stress, he adds: "About four times as many people die from work-related causes than do in road traffic accidents each year. It's not getting the coverage it used to, partly because of detrimental press coverage about health and safety going mad, which means people don't think it's an issue any more. It still is just as serious as it's always been."

Damning statistics

Death at work is still a rarity, but it is on reports of more common injury - workplace illness and work-related ill health - that the statistics are also damning. In 2005/6 24 million days were lost to work-related ill-health (above). By 2007/8 it was 28 million. The overall number of days lost to workplace injuries has not improved for the past four years (about six million per year), while the chance of sustaining an injury has actually increased. There were 299,000 'reportable' injuries over 2007/8 (those that have to be logged under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations. This compares with 146,076 in 2005/6. Last year 1.4 days were lost per employee due to a workplace injury, up from 1.3 in 2005/6. (above right).

"What the Health & Safety at Work Act has done cannot be underestimated," says Lawrence Waterman, managing director of health and safety consultancy Sypol. "It covered an extra five million workers, and created the notion that employees 'brought their work with them' when, say, out on call. Prior to this, legislation was reactive; it waited for a critical number of accidents to happen before it enacted. HSWA enshrined the concept that employers had to plan for accidents that 'might; or 'could' happen, rather than ones that actually did happen."

As well as managing director of Sypol, Waterman is head of health and safety for London 2012, overseeing all construction work for the stadium and athletes' village. But he agrees with Bailey that firms have not maintained their initial level of improvement in recent years. "If you introduce better equipment and procedures you address the likelihood of fatal injuries. That's the first step in improving health and safety," he says. "If you document processes about how to use equipment, you reach the second level, but it is the third - the whole area of people behaviour, worker engagement with health and safety and what staff think - that I think HR has been slower to adapt to. Getting the whole workforce behind a better attitude to health at work has been more of a struggle. The plateau we've been stuck on is doing levels 1 and 2, but the third area is in its infancy."

The average accident rate in construction is one every 125,000 reported hours (a level of 0.8 per 100,000 workers). At London 2012 Waterman's level is just 0.1 -equating to one accident every 1.25 million hours. This is despite the 2012 project being twice the scale of Terminal 5, having to be built in half the time. "It's not because we have any better equipment, or that we have longer to do it - we're up against the clock," he says. "It's more because we constantly talk about it. Health and safety is built into the business plan, but I feel still only a minority of businesses have got this message."

Few occupational health services

So why is this not happening? One view gaining credence is that over the past 35 years organisations have actually become 'less' not more accommodating to staff needs when it comes to occupational health. According to the TUC, firms have stripped back occupational health to such an extent that less than one third of workers currently have access to an occupational health professional; 10 years ago, the figure was 50%.

In a speech at the Faculty of Occupational Medicine's Winter Conference (December 2008), its president, David Coggon, spoke specifically of the "worrying" trend that "people working in hazardous professions such as agriculture or construction do not have the support they need to prevent injuries that keep them off work." He added: "With the credit crunch taking its toll on businesses, it is crucial employers do not see occupational health services as an area to cut back on, and instead invest in the health of their staff, which will be more beneficial in the long run."

Natasha Freeman, president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, rejects these claims, though. "Larger companies did have occupational health departments, and these have been cut, but now it's a case that occupational health has become so specialist - to include stress and musculoskeletal issues - that workers have benefited from being sent to external specialists."

Freeman, who admits to having to run courses for businesses about what health and safety professionals actually do, says there is a more worrying trend afoot - one where HR still has to be part of the process: "We've seen the nature of work change - from less heavy industry to more office work, and this has contributed to the drop in deaths and workplace ill-health. But we feel there is a reason why the health and safety figures have reached a plateau." she says. "We're seeing more older people returning to work post-retirement age; we're seeing more young people being pushed into unfamiliar work environments at an earlier age to get experience, mainly through the apprenticeship route; and we're also seeing more transient workers. Twenty years ago, business started to 'get' health and safety; now we're in danger of moving backwards."

Effect of recession

She thinks the problem will only get worse now the UK economy has entered a recession. "I worry about the economic situation," she says. "With less job security, more people are working to live, doing longer hours, dragging themselves into work when they're ill, and when they should be at home. This is quite a new concept for health and safety professionals to have to deal with. The boundaries are shifting."

Freeman's point brings into focus what she describes as the fact "not all work- related illness is entirely work-related - that outside home pressures are also coming to the fore." But she believes that now, in the current downturn, HR's responsibility is to involve occupational health as early as possible. "GPs are reluctant to sign people as being fit to return to work because they don't know enough about their workplaces. That's why HR and occupational health need to work in partnership because they are familiar. They can suggest things like staged return to work, or other trial runs."

The challenges facing HR are clearly shifting. 'Injury' at work is now more of a slow burn issue than it was when the H&SWA was first introduced. Today musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common occupational illness in Great Britain, affecting more than 1.1 million people a year.

MSDs cost society £5.7 billion and in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, for example, from 1 April 2006 to 31 March 2007, the number one reason for sickness absence was musculoskeletal problems - which accounted for 26% of all absences. What seems apparent, though, is that despite new laws - such as the year-old Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act (see below), which has yet to produce any major case law to refer to - it is the original HSWA that is still regarded as the umbrella law.

"This Act was originally heralded as opening a new era in health and safety, where not only business leaders but corporate bodies or organisations themselves would be brought to book in the criminal courts for acts of gross negligence causing death to employees and others," says David Malamatenios, associate at law firm Colman Coyle LLP. "This has not been the case. Prosecutors are continuing to rely on the existing sub-structure of health and safety legislation to bring cases - legislation HR is used to using and which it regards as user-friendly."

It seems the Health & Safety at Work Act is still as relevant today as it ever was 35 years ago. It has stopped the workplace being the dangerous place it used to be. But there is still a long way to go before the initial fall in workplace ill-health and injuries that the Act first delivered continues and meets the Government's own targets. To achieve this HR needs to remember that the health and safety of workers is still just as important - if not more so going forward - than it has ever been.

KEVIN MYERS, DEPUTY CEO, HSE

"It's easy to say we've not hit specific targets for work-related ill-health, but this would ignore some of the real improvements - such as in muscoskeletal conditions - that have been made in workplace health and safety," says HSE deputy chief executive Kevin Myers. "That said, we accept more improvement has been made in the past 35 years than in the past five." Myers argues that those noticing the recent plateau in improvement often say it gets harder and harder to make incremental improvements, but the HSE thinks there is always scope for improvement. "Ill health from work is entirely preventable," he says. "Economists and financiers may want to cost the ROI of implementing more procedures, but we think recognising safety is a business enabler."

In the past three years, the HSE has made around 1,100 prosecutions per year for serious breaches of health and safety standards. But although the trend for HSE prosecutions has been downward, Myers says acting against irresponsible companies remains a significant priority. "We'd like to see higher penalties for companies that do get taken to court," he says.

Myers admits half of the improvements in death and workplace illness are just as likely due to changes in the industrial base as to the Health and Safety at Work Act. He also says there is difficulty in recognising 'new' ill-health: "Conditions like stress have a more gradual creep and its trigger point is not uniquely work-related." Despite this, the HSE has launched a consultation strategy with several aims.

"We want to reinforce the principles of the Health and Safety at Work Act - especially the requirement that employers engage employees in health and safety. We're focusing on leadership within organisations, as all the evidence shows the best companies in health and safety are those that demonstrate strong leadership competencies. We're also re-launching a campaign to cut stress, and we're talking about 'sensible risk'," he says. "We used to be criticised for not publicising health and safety enough; now it's gone the other way, and there's a view that those who promote safety are jobsworths who take the fun out of life. We think employees can still enjoy work, and manage risk sensibly."

He adds: "A fact often forgotten, is that from a mental and physical health point of view, people are much more likely to be healthy if they are in employment rather than out of it."

NETWORK RAIL SAFETY CAMPAIGN

Between 1995 and 2005, a total of 30 workers died while working for Network Rail - a figure three times the national average for workplace deaths. To tackle this Network Rail launched 'Safety 365', an integrated campaign using posters, cups, films, safety briefings, advertising trucks, and a range of other ambient media aimed at hitting as many of the organisation's 32,000 core workers and 100,000 contract workers as possible. The campaign is run by branding and communications agency Aqueduct and, since its launch in 2005, has gone through three iterations including specific awareness of fire and noise, with its own online portal where employees and the company's 3,000 safety briefers can download e-learning material. According to research in 2007, three in five Network Rail staff said the safety communications have changed the way they think about safety and the way they perform their job. Research also reveals there has been a reduction in 'major accidents', from 98 in 2005/6 to 79 in 2007/8. In the four years since the campaign was launched, two deaths have occurred - an average of one every two years, (and none in 2006/7), compared with the three per year rate before the campaign. The Accident Frequency Rate for Network Rail employees and contractors for 2007/08 was 0.226 - a 14% reduction on the 2006/7 figure. It compares with a rate of 0.401 for the rest of the construction sector as a whole. Since the campaign was introduced, a complete review and revision of the company's Controller of Site Safety (COSS) site briefing forms was taken, making forms simpler to complete. To increase the effectiveness of workforce briefings, a training module on 'effective briefing' was developed and introduced to the COSS training course. The object of the module is to raise the delivery standards for COSS briefings and increase knowledge transfer.

CONSTRUCTION DEATH TOLL

The construction industry, which employs more than 2.2 million people, is officially the most dangerous. In the past 25 years alone, more than 2,800 people have died from injuries they sustained as a result of construction work. Many more have been injured or made ill. In 2006/2007 141,350 employees were seriously injured - up 11% on the previous year.

HSE - POLICY GONE MAD, OR MAD TO IGNORE it?

Vanessa Potter, associate, Doyle Clayton Solicitors

From preventing pancake races to providing earmuffs for bagpipe players everyone has a view on what the appropriate limit of health and safety is. Despite the HSE writing numerous letters in response to articles blaming health and safety for banning fun and printing a 'myth of the month' on its website, the feeling remains that health and safety is the preserve of do-gooders trying to stop people going about their daily and traditional occupations, imposing unnecessary and unwanted costs on business.

Arguably the rate of death and serious illness through work is still too high, and there will always be employers who knowingly and willingly disregard the law, but has the seemingly never-ending number of regulations made any difference?

In short the answer must be yes. The number of deaths, non-fatal injuries and work-related illness has all fallen significantly over the past 35 years. Some of this (about 50%) is believed to be due to the change in the nature of employment over the years but that still leaves a good proportion that is due to better regulation and its consequences, together with better awareness and the (willing or unwilling) consideration and avoidance of risk. While we can always find an example of health and safety gone mad there is a world of difference between the real issues that concern the HSE and the law and policy-makers, and the officious health and safety official insisting on vacuum cleaner training for a school cleaner.

The HSE is currently holding a three-month consultation about its future strategy (www.hse.gov.uk). This provides the opportunity to give your views on the way forward. If you don't reply and let them know your opinions and concerns you cannot be surprised if they do not take them into account.

THE CORPORATE MANSLAUGHTER AND CORPORATE HOMICIDE ACT

A year ago next month The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act came into force. It means managers or organisation can be found guilty of an offence under the Act, if the way in which the organisation's activities are managed or organised causes a person's death. Those found guilty can now face unlimited fines - starting at 5% of annual turnover, while individuals will be required to implement remedial actions and may also be required to publish details of their offences and the penalties implemented.

BS OHSAS 18001 is recognised as a method for demonstrating compliance with the Corporate Manslaughter Act and Duty of Care. It is an internationally-recognised standard that defines the framework for implementing an effective health and safety management system. It requires all staff to be aware of the organisation's commitment to health and safety and understand their responsibilities for their own health and safety. It also requires that all staff, including senior management, are competent to carry out their activities relating to health and safety.

"Having a health and safety management system in place will not only help mitigate any offence under the Act and help you to demonstrate your duty of care, but may lead to considerable benefits by reducing sickness and absenteeism. Cutting down on the number of claims made to insurance companies will lead to lower employer liability premiums," says Jacqueline Smith, product marketing manager health and safety, BSI Management Systems. "The Act is an opportunity for employers to think again about how risks are managed, and for organisations to ensure they are taking proper steps to meet current legal duties."