The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently released its annual casualty figures, reporting 147 people died at work in 2018/19. A slight rise since the previous year, this number is nevertheless within normal variation. Workplace death rates have declined when compared to prior decades.
However, with world-leading health and safety legislation in place, why are workers in the UK still dying at work?
Louise Taggart's brother Michael, an electrician, was killed in 2005 after cutting a live wire marked "not in use". Later investigations found there was inadequate supervision and training at his company. Michael had not been supplied with the correct safety equipment.
It's impossible to tell what process he followed when cutting the wire. Safety inspectors suggested that if he'd been holding his equipment by the insulated grips, he would have been safe from the electric shock. Despite this safety feature, many electricians grip them by the metal ends to get the necessary purchase on them.
Louise set up Michael's Story, dedicated to preventing accidents like the one that killed her brother. Her speeches often focus on the impact on friends and families when somebody is killed or injured at work. Often, their loved ones pay the price for the rest of their lives. In 2018/19, 92 members of the public were killed due to work-related activities.
Louise was named the SHP's Most Influential Person in Health and Safety in 2018 in recognition of her work.
Despite the important campaigning done by Michael's Story, the HSE, RoSPA and other organisations, there continue to be far too many stories similar to Michael's every year.
Although the legislation is in place, that doesn't always guarantee it will be followed to the letter.
Often, HSE investigations find that the companies involved had updated risk assessments. If these were followed, they might have prevented the fatal accident. Risk assessments can be written and not followed, or forgotten about. Employers are responsible for communicating their risk assessments to their staff. They must also ensure the control measures laid out in them are put in place correctly. The appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) must be given to all staff.
There are multiple examples of badly designed work processes that put workers at risk of serious injuries or deaths. In May 2019, a waste management company was heavily fined after a labourer was killed by a loader reversing over him. The company had received a notice to improve from the HSE months before the incident, but there were still no effective traffic management systems in place. Nothing was preventing vehicles and pedestrians colliding in the area where the worker was killed. Unfortunately, as those who follow health and safety developments will know, this is far from an isolated incident.
Pressure on Workers and Managers
Workers, and their managers, are often working to tight deadlines. Whether it's a building job that needs to be done by the end of the day or a shipment that needs to be delivered, time pressures can mean otherwise safe workers flout the rules.
In June 2018, an experienced cruise ship worker was crushed to death by a machine designed for washing windows. The coroner suggested that his death could have been prevented by asking his colleague to operate the machine remotely, but speculated he worked it manually to save time. It wasn't suggested in this case that his employer had put undue pressure on him to complete the work quickly.
Often, the pressure to work unsafely can be unspoken. RoSPA's website has a case study about Jason, a former construction worker paralysed after falling from a ladder. He knew at the time that he shouldn't climb the ladder – the ground condition wasn't right and it didn't look secure. However, his boss had been up before him and they were under pressure to please their customer, so he climbed it anyway. This had devastating long-term effects on him and his family.
It takes courage to fight back against unrealistic pressure that compromises health and safety, but it's vital for workers to speak up about anything that puts them at risk.
Not Enough Training
Both good quality formal training and decent on the job learning are important in producing a rounded, well-prepared worker. Amazingly, people are more likely to have a workplace accident during the first six months in the workplace as they are during the rest of their career. This can be due to inexperience, lack of familiarity with the workplace, or hesitancy to raise potential issues with new co-workers.
It's not just inexperienced workers who need thorough training. It should be a prominent and ongoing project for everyone in the workplace. By making people aware of best practice, we can work to lower the annual fatality and accident figures. Hopefully, no more families will have to go through the pain of the preventable loss of a loved one at work.