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Non-COVID workplace deaths increase despite lockdowns

HSE says Great Britain is “one of the safest places to work in the world”; campaigners disagree.
22 July 2021 , Katie Coyne

Workplace deaths reported by the Health and Safety Executive increased by 29 last year – a 25% rise on the previous year’s figures.

A total of 142 people were killed at work in 2020-21 according to the HSE figures. These excluded COVID-related deaths and only count the number of workplace deaths in limited circumstances.

The HSE said in statistical terms there has been a long-term reduction in the number of workplace fatalities. The average number of people killed annually at work over the past five years is 136.

The executive said the number of deaths it recorded in 2019-20 was slightly lower than average at 113, resulting in a steeper rise in the number of deaths last year. Chief executive Sarah Albon said: “Great Britain is one of the safest places to work in the world, every loss of life is a tragedy, we are committed to ensuring that workplaces are as safe as they can be”.

However, campaigners have questioned how the number of fatalities has increased given that many workplaces were shut for much of the year. EHN Extra asked the HSE whether it had any insight as to why this was, and they gave the following comment: “Putting this number in context of previous years’ data is difficult given the disruption to the economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the government response, which have had a significant effect on the UK labour market.

“As you mention, many businesses ceased operating or changed their working practices, while government interventions allowed for the furloughing of workers. The number of workplace deaths in 2020-21 should be seen in the context of these challenges in the labour market.”

The National Hazards Campaign (NHC) said the rise in the number of deaths was “massive” and accused the HSE of burying bad news as the figures were published on the day of the UEFA Euro 2020 semi-final when England played Denmark.

NHC has been critical in the past that the HSE figures are not comprehensive – as they exclude work-related fatal injuries on the road, sea or in the air, as well as work related suicides – and now questioned why these latest figures do not include the 383 work-related COVID deaths.

NHC chair Janet Newsham said: “Although HSE statistics only represent a small percentage of the actual number of deaths because of work each year, it is still a huge increase in fatalities reportable through RIDDOR.”

Newsham went on to say that the campaign believes this is because the executive, “isn’t carrying out sufficient preventative inspections, isn’t holding bad employers to account, and hasn’t sufficient resources to carry out the enforcement needed to protect workers and prevent these incidents”.

She added: “During the pandemic the HSE locked down initially, and then paid a debt collecting company to run their call centre and carry out onsite inspections, without adequate training, skills or knowledge to do the job. The result has been no COVID prosecutions and a complacent HSE.”

Campaign group Unchecked UK has previously highlighted the cuts in resources that regulators, including the HSE, have faced over the austerity decade.

Its report The UK’s Enforcement Gap 2020, by founder Emma Rose, highlighted that the HSE has had to contend with a 58% cut in funding and a 34% cut in workforce between 2009 and 2019.

This year’s HSE workplace death statistics revealed that the three most common causes of injury that accounted for more than half of the deaths it recorded were: falling from height (35 deaths); being struck by a moving vehicle (25 deaths); and being struck by a moving object (17 deaths).

Older workers were at increased risk. They comprise only 11% of the workforces surveyed, but 30% of the workplace deaths recorded by the HSE.

Accidents in the workplace also caused the death of 60 members of the public.

HSE also released latest figures for the number of deaths caused by mesothelioma, from historical occupational asbestos exposure. Some 2,369 people died across Great Britain in 2019. The average annual number of deaths from mesothelioma over the past seven years is 2,540 people.

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