Our physical wellbeing at work is in the spotlight like never before. We are still in the midst of one of the biggest shifts in working culture in living memory, with the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath set to change everything from the amount we work from home to the layouts of our offices.
With workplace health and safety in the headlines, in July the HSE released its annual report into workplace fatality figures. (They don't include deaths directly resulting from COVID-19.) The good news is that they are lower than before – 111 in 2019/20, a drop from 147 the previous year. This might be due to the break in many physical jobs the pandemic caused and the rise of homeworking for many, but though every workplace death is a tragedy, a fall is a good sign no matter what the cause. The long-term trend shows a steady decline in deaths.
Delving deeper into the figures, they tell an interesting story about the risks across industries – and how workplace health and safety still has a way to go before we get the fatality figures down to zero.
Construction and Other High-Risk Industries
The HSE website includes a breakdown by industry of the workplace fatalities. This shows construction had twice the amount of workplace deaths as the next highest industry, agriculture.
In many ways, the industries most likely to suffer tragedies like workplace deaths are no surprise: they are often more physical in their day to day work and involve work in difficult conditions, such as on buildings in need of repair or using machinery. There are more opportunities in these lines of work to fall victim to the most common causes of workplace deaths: falls from height, being struck by a moving vehicle and being struck by a moving object. This underlines the need for robust risk assessments and safety measures in place to protect all workers and members of the public.
Recently it's been almost impossible to avoid the phrase "the new normal". Used to describe everything from new workplace layouts to socialising over Zoom, the phrase covers both the challenges and opportunities ahead. Unfortunately, nobody can agree exactly what "the new normal" will mean at this point.
Health and safety will need to stay front-and-centre of companies' minds for the foreseeable future. Training will be even more important for all employees, including those working from home, and engaging employees in this learning will be vital.
The challenge facing employers in the future, especially in high-risk industries, is how to protect people from COVID-19 whilst not neglecting their traditional health and safety arrangements. All previous protections and control measures must be in place, even if they have to be adapted to meet the new guidelines.
It remains to be seen how COVID-19 and the associated changes to workplaces will affect the workplace fatality figures in the years to come. With appropriate training and keeping the focus on all aspects of workers' health and safety, employers can play their part in bringing that figure lower and lower.