Fatal workplace injuries have dropped, but businesses need to remain vigilant

While the figures show workplaces are safer, employers should be cautious and not let the challenges posed by Covid come at the expense of other hazards, says Nick Wilson

Falling from heights and being hit by a moving vehicle or object continue to account for more than half of all fatal workplace injuries, new figures showed.

The latest report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that of the 111 work-related fatalities reported last year, 22 were due to falling from height and 18 from being hit by a moving vehicle or object.

Despite this, employers are making workplaces safer as figures between April 2019 and March 2020 recorded the fewest work-related fatalities on record, according to HSE’s annual work-related fatality statistics.

However, it’s not immediately obvious what impact, if any, the current pandemic may have had on the seemingly promising statistics. The first 10 months of 2019/20 were already on track for a lower annual number of deaths, the HSE stated in its report, but February and March recorded a particularly low number compared to the historical average for the time of year.

The key findings

In fact the average rate of deaths per 100,000 workers across all industries dropped from 0.42 to the previous year to 0.34. The sector with the highest number of fatal injuries in 2019/20 was the construction industry (40), followed by agriculture, forestry and fishing (20) and manufacturing (15).

The HSE has said that the “striking” year-on-year fall may not reflect a major shift in the inherent dangerousness of workplaces. It references statistics that show Covid-19 had a large impact on UK economic output in March, but also anecdotal evidence of some small effects in February too. This suggests that Covid-19 may have contributed to the lower-than-usual death toll.

The report, which does not include deaths from occupational diseases (Covid-related deaths), it also highlights that the overwhelming majority (97 per cent) of all worker fatalities in 2019/20 were to male workers. A similar proportion to previous years and is likely due to the higher proportion of men in more dangerous occupations.

And despite making up around 10 per cent of the workforce, just over a quarter (27 per cent) of fatal injuries last year were to employees aged 60 and over.

Employers must be cautious

Of course, any reduction in this set of figures is welcome. It’s also good news given the current risk control challenges presented by Covid-19. But the headline numbers indicating that employers are on top of workplace risks must be put into context. 

The HSE has warned against complacency and has urged employers not to let Covid-19 blind them to the other dangers present in their workplace that still need to be controlled, The regulator said: “Whilst monitoring precautions against Covid-19 remains important, employers also need to ensure that monitoring for compliance with precautions aimed at other risks also continues and is not degraded.”

Coronavirus remains prevalent throughout the UK and efforts in the workplace are understandably directed towards controlling this hazard. But that should not come at the expense of other hazards which continue to account for the majority of workplace fatality and major injury. 

For employers, focus on health and safety remains vital going into 2021. With instances of Covid-19 reportable under the RIDDOR regulations if the disease resulted from occupational exposure, next year’s total figures may present a very different picture. Every employer must regularly review their risk assessment and make duty of care to their employees their top priority.

Nick Wilson is director of health and safety services at Ellis Whittam